482 U. S. 78
June 1, 1987
A prison in Missouri prohibited inmates from corresponding with non-relative inmates, and required any marriages involving inmates to be subjected to approval from the superintendent. Both of these rules were challenged as undue burdens on the Constitutional rights of prisoners.
The Court ruled unanimously that the marriage rule could not stand, but upheld the correspondence rule 5-4. Justice O’Connor reviewed several prison precedents, and concluded that prison regulations should be upheld if they reasonably related to their aims, and were not exaggerated responses. She stressed that deference needs to be given to the judgments of those who run prisons, since they must control dangerous environments. Because of the danger of incipient conspiracies, and the impossibility of reading all correspondence, O’Connor felt the communication rule was reasonable. At the same time, she found the marriage rule overbroad, since only a few marriages would potentially cause trouble, and since marriage was such a fundamental human right.
Stevens, joined by Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun, dissented. He observed that the rules in this Missouri prison were not necessary because they were stricter than those used in most other prisons, and that less restrictive means to control prisoners could be found. More importantly, he pointed out that the majority opinion rejected the factual findings of the District Court, and accepted unjustified claims of the prison without any scrutiny. Stevens wondered aloud why the majority did not similarly accept at face value the prison’s contentions about the marriage rule.
I think Stevens is right that the majority was inconsistent in its treatment of the two rules. But I would go the opposite direction from him and say that both rules were Constitutional. Prohibiting prisoners from marrying is just good public policy. Scripture says that a husband who cannot provide for his family is worse than an unbeliever. There is no ‘right’ to marriage – instead it must be seen as a privilege for those able to handle its immense responsibility.