Turner v. Safely

482 U.S. 78, 107 S. Ct. 2254, 96 L. Ed. 2d 64 (1987)


In Turner v. Safely, the Supreme Court decided a challenge to prison rules that forbid prisoners from communicating with each other by mail and restricted the right to marry a fellow prisoner or civil. The Supreme Court upheld the restriction on mail while reversing the rule that regulated marriage.


Inmates in the Missouri Department of Corrections filed a class action lawsuit. The prison system only allowed mail communications between inmates that did not relate to legal matters. Otherwise, the inmates’ treatment teams would have to determine that mail communication was in the best interests of the parties. With regard to marriage, it was subject to prison officials’ permission, which would be granted only if there were “compelling interests.” The Federal District Court and Appeals Court found both regulations unconstitutional.


The Supreme Court held that there was a legitimate prison interest in restricting mail communication between prison inmates at different facilities. The Court explained that prisoners may communicate with each other about escape plans or criminal activity within prisons. The regulation did not completely restrict prisoners’ ability to communicate. It was tailored in that it only restricted communication with a certain class of people.

The Court viewed the regulation about marriage differently. Here, there were no security interests that the prison may have. Instead, there is a marriage relationship that is constitutionally protected. Prisoners may have some aspects of their marriage restricted by the realities of being incarcerated, but they still have the right to marry, notwithstanding their limitations. According to the Court, marriage is a personal decision that is not impacted by prison considerations. The prison regulation was far too broad, and it did not further prison interests. In fact, the Supreme Court found that male prisoners’ marriages caused no problems for prison officials.

The dissent, while concurring with the Court’s opinion regarding marriages, wrote that the restriction on inmate mail was overly broad. Writing for the dissent, Justice Stevens argued that the restriction on mail was unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. According to Justice Stevens, the majority’s reasoning in upholding this regulation was based on speculation of what could happen, as opposed to concrete evidence. The rationale for the prison rules was based on the assertions of prison officials. The dissent believed that this was not enough to overcome the constitutional rights that prisoners still have when behind bars.

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