Facts of the case
In the late 1970s, Renz Correctional Institution converted to a “complex prison”. Generally, female prisoners at Renz were medium and maximum security level offenders, while most male inmates were minimum security offenders. Leonard Safley was a male inmate at Renz, and P.J. Watson was a female inmate. They met at Renz, where they became romantically involved; Watson was then transferred to Ozark Correctional Center because of this relationship. Prison authorities rebuffed all of Safley’s attempts to directly contact Watson.
A Missouri Division of Corrections regulation permitted correspondence between inmates who were immediate family members, but correspondence between inmates who were not family members was only allowed if 1) it related to legal matters or 2) at the discretion of the classification/treatment team of both inmates. Another regulation only permitted inmates to marry with the permission of the prison superintendent, and specified that permission should only be given when there was a compelling reason to do so.
The district court certified plaintiffs as a class including inmates at Renz who desired to correspond with inmates at other prison facilities. This class also included persons who wished to marry inmates at Missouri correctional facilities and whose right to marry had been allegedly violated by the DoC. Plaintiffs filed an action against Renz's Superintendent William Turner and others for injunctive relief and damages. The district court applied strict scrutiny to both DoC restrictions. It held that the restriction on correspondence was overly broad and capriciously applied, and that the marriage restriction violated inmates’ constitutional right to marry. The United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit, affirmed, further holding that neither restriction was the narrowest means of addressing the DoC’s security concerns.
1. Was the Missouri Department of Corrections’ restriction limiting correspondence between inmates a violation of those prisoners’ First Amendment rights?
2. Was the Missouri Department of Corrections' restriction limiting prisoners’ ability to marry a violation of prisoners’ constitutional right to marry?
No and yes. In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Justice Byron White, Justice Louis Powell and Justice Antonin Scalia, the Court upheld the Missouri Department of Correction’s restriction on correspondence between inmates. Justice O’Connor looked to the Court’s test for determining the reasonableness of restrictions on prison inmates’ expressive freedom. She argued that this particular content-neutral restriction on correspondence between inmates was logically connected to the DoC’s legitimate security concerns, noting the danger of coordinated gang activity in Missouri prisons. Justice O’Connor further reasoned that the restrictions did not deprive inmates of all means of expression, only limiting correspondence with a particular class of people. She argued that the Eighth Circuit failed to consider the impact easing the restriction might have on the liberty and safety of prison guards and other inmates. Finally, Justice O’Connor argued that there were no obvious, easy alternatives to the DoC’s restrictions.
Turning to the DoC’s marriage restriction, Justice O’Connor held that it was an unconstitutional violation of inmates’ fundamental right to marry. While acknowledging that prisoners’ right to marry is subject to restriction, she argued that many important aspects of marriage should not be altered by a person’s incarceration, including the potential emotional and religious impact of marriage to another. Hence, Missouri prisoners retained a constitutionally-protected right to marry. Justice O’Connor further held that the DoC’s marriage restriction was not reasonably related to its stated interest in preventing violence in prisons and in the rehabilitation of female prisoners.
Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justices William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and Harry Blackmun, concurred in part and dissented in part. While agreeing with the majority’s holding that the marriage restriction was unconstitutional, he rejected the majority’s application of a reasonableness standard to the facts on record. Justice Stevens argued that the majority improperly accepted the DoC’s mostly speculative arguments with respect to the DoC’s security concerns about inmate correspondence, while rejecting the DoC’s similarly speculative concerns about marriage between inmates.