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Remembering the High Point of Prisoner Rights

by David L. Hudson, Jr.

Thirty-seven years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396 (1974), a ruling that has since proven to be the high-water mark for prisoner rights.

On April 29, 1974, the high court invalidated California Department of Corrections regulations that allowed sweeping censorship of prisoner mail.

One regulation allowed prison officials to ban any prisoner letters that “unduly complain” or “magnify grievances.” Another permitted the censorship of prisoner mail that expressed “inflammatory political, racial, religious, or other views or beliefs.” Yet another gave corrections officials the right to censor prisoner mail that said anything “defamatory” or “inappropriate.” In reality, these rules allowed officials to censor any prisoner letters they wanted.

Before examining those restrictions, the Court did something significant – it established a constitutional baseline for reviewing prisoner First Amendment claims. Traditionally, courts had taken an approach of total deference to prison officials. In its decision in Procunier v. Martinez, the Court ruled that – at least with regard to censorship of prisoner mail – corrections officials had to show a substantial government interest in a particular regulation and that the regulation must be “no greater than is necessary or essential to the protection” of that government interest.

The Court then applied this standard, finding that the California restrictions on prisoner mail violated this test, because officials failed to show a substantial government interest in these restrictions. Justice Lewis Powell, writing for the high court, said the regulations “invited prison officials and employees to apply their own personal prejudices and opinions” to restrict prisoner communications.

The Court also recognized that the rules on prisoner mail affected more than just the prisoner. “The wife of a prison inmate who is not permitted to read all that her husband wanted to say to her has suffered an abridgment of her interest in communicating with him as plain as that which results from censorship of her letter to him,” Powell wrote. “In either event, censorship of prisoner mail works a consequential restriction on the First and Fourteenth Amendments rights of those who are not prisoners.”

In his concurring opinion, Justice Thurgood Marshall expressed even more solicitude for prisoner free-speech rights. “The First Amendment serves not only the needs of the polity but also those of the human spirit – a spirit that demands self-expression,” he wrote. “When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded.”

William Bennett Turner, the attorney who filed the classaction lawsuit on behalf of Robert Martinez and other California prisoners, writes about Procunier v. Martinez in his insightful new book Figures of Speech: First Amendment Heroes and Villains. Turner explained that when he argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, he was not arguing for unfettered expressive rights for prisoners: “We were not seeking a First Amendment charter of liberty for prisoners, only a constitutional minimum – a right not to be punished for criticizing prison officials or saying things that officials might consider otherwise ‘inappropriate.’”

The Supreme Court found the California Department of Corrections’ rules limiting prisoner correspondence “inappropriate” and thereby respected prisoners as persons.
In 1987, the Court reduced the constitutional standard for prisoners in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), explaining that prison officials could impose restrictions on prisoner mail if they had a legitimate reason for doing so. The Court still said that prisoners retain free-speech protection, writing: “Prison walls do not form a barrier separating inmates from the protections of the Constitution.” But, the import of the decision was clear – a reduction in prisoners’ free-expression rights.

If Procunier v. Martinez was the high-water mark for Supreme Court respect for prisoner rights, the waters have receded since then.

David L. Hudson, Jr. is a scholar at the First Amendment Center. This article first appeared on on April 29, 2011, and is reprinted with permission.

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