Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987)

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Turner v. Safley represents a benchmark in the Supreme Court’s movement toward greater deference to prison administrators. A class of prisoners had challenged regulations restricting inmate-to-inmate correspondence and inmate marriage. The appellate court applied a strict scrutiny standard and found both regulations unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court held that a less stringent reasonableness standard should be applied. The Court reasoned that the task of prison administration calls for the development of expertise in resource allocation and planning best suited to the legislative and executive branches.

The Court articulated four factors relevant to the question of whether a regulation is (reasonably related to legitimate penological interests (Turner v. Safley at 89). First, courts should examine the nexus between the regulation and the governmental interest, which must be legitimate and neutral. Absent a rational, logical connection, the challenged policy is unconstitutionally arbitrary and capricious. The second and fourth factors focus on the availability of alternative practices that permit prisoners to exercise the right otherwise curtailed by the regulation. On the one hand, the existence of alternatives favors judicial deference since prisoners may engage in protected behavior through other means. On the other hand, their existence may indicate that the challenged regulation is an exaggerated response that fails the reasonableness test, particularly when the alternative fully accommodates the prisoner’s rights at de minimis cost to valid penological interests (Turner v. Safley at 91). Under this reasoning, the absence of alternatives may also show reasonableness. The third factor advises deference to the informed judgment of corrections officials regarding the cost of accommodating a prisoner’s constitutional right in terms of resource allocation and security concerns.


References and Further Reading

  • A Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual 869-72, Colum. Hum. Rts. L. rev. ed., 5th ed. 2000.
  • Zick, Timothy D., and Jeff Trask, Annual Review, Twentieth Annual Review of Criminal Procedure: United States Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals 1989–90, VI. Prisoners’ Rights: Prisoners’ Substantive Rights, Geo. L. J. 1253 79 (1991): 1253–1254.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Bell v. Wolfish, 442 U.S. 520 (1979)
  • Block v. Rutherford, 468 U.S. 576 (1984)
  • Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Union, 433 U.S. 119 (1977)
  • Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817 (1974)

See also Cruel and Unusual Punishment (VII); Prisoners and Freedom of Speech