Rehnquist Family Values

Human Rights

With prisons filled to overflowing, it's no wonder that state governments are seeking to cut costs. The goal of rehabilitation was long ago replaced by that of warehousing, and now the overriding objective is to warehouse cheaply.

The Michigan prison system is a microcosm of national problems. Holding fewer than 19,000 inmates in 1986, it confined more than double that number by 1995. It was then, as prisoner numbers continued to swell, that the state corrections department instituted strict new rules to reduce the number of visitors that prisoners received. Visitors, the department claimed, were overwhelming the prison system's resources.

A federal district court struck down the most restrictive of the new regulations, a ruling that an appellate court unanimously affirmed. Chiding the corrections department for having implemented "a series of haphazard policies" that violated inmates' rights to maintain contact with their families, the court found that the department had utterly failed to justify the restrictions.

Last week, the Supreme Court disagreed. Although the Court issued three opinions in the case - we might call them mean, meaner, and meanest - its judgment was unanimous. A more callous and short-sighted ruling is hard to imagine.

Under the reasoning of last week's decision in Overton v. Bazzetta, state corrections departments are almost entirely free to deny prisoners' visiting privileges. Because, in the Supreme Court's view, regulations meant to reduce the number of prison visitors serve the goal of promoting prisons' internal security, they merit only the most deferential scrutiny.

Upheld in the Overton case was a regulation that barred prisoners who had twice committed drug infractions from receiving any family visits, including non-contact visits (where inmates see their relatives through a reinforced glass window). Other regulations that were sustained prevented inmates from receiving visits from their siblings, nieces and nephews under age eighteen, and from minors who are not accompanied by an immediate family member or legal guardian.

Consider how you would react if you were told that you could no longer see your children, but, not to worry, you could still write them letters. Or if you, like some 40 to 80 percent of Michigan inmates, were functionally illiterate, or your children were too young to read, that you still had the option of short phone calls.

The Overton case was, in part, based on the judgment that while such options may not be optimal, they are nonetheless sufficient. "Alternatives to visitation need not be ideal," the Court emphasized, "they need only be available."

In other words, it doesn't matter if prisoners spend years without ever seeing their children. Because allowing greater numbers of visits might require "a significant reallocation of the prison system's financial resources," it's enough to grant prisoners access to letters and phone calls (calls that are charged at exorbitant rates, one should note).

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