ACLU Hails Prisoner Rights Decision-Sixth Circuit Lambastes Michigan Department

In a searing opinion today, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the District Court ruling that restrictions on prison visitation imposed in 1995 violated prisoners’ rights on several grounds, including freedom to associate, cruel and unusual punishment and due process of the law. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, who filed an amicus brief in the lawsuit, hailed the Court of Appeals decision as justice at its best.

“The Court makes clear that the Michigan Department of Corrections’ regulations fall far below the ‘minimum standards of decency’ that every person in our country is entitled to,” said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director, “This ruling has implications for prisoners in every state.   The decision clearly and explicitly recognizes that prisoners retain some rights, even when they are behind prison walls.” 

The MDOC’s 1995 regulations banned visits from prisoners’ minor brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews; banned all visits by prisoners’ children when parental rights had been terminated, even when the termination was voluntarily surrendered in the child’s best interest; banned all visits by former prisoners who are not immediate family, even when the former prisoner has been rehabilitated; required that visiting children be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian; and permanently banned visitors, apart from attorneys and clergy, for prisoners who twice violated the department’s drug abuse policies.

The department claimed that the restrictions were needed “to reduce the number of visitors to manageable levels, to stop smuggling, and to protect children from exposure to the prison environment,” according to the opinion.

The Court found that the MDOC was unable to provide definitive evidence to support any of the restrictions.  In fact, the Court determined that the regulations were an exaggerated response to perceived problems where far less severe solutions were available.  They went further by stating that the regulations were applied in a capricious manner, without reviewable standards, harsh, cruel, arbitrary, harmful and applied where there is no reasonable relation between the ban and a legitimate penological interest.  “It isn’t good for either prisoners or prison officials if inmates are cut off from their lifelines.  These regulations can only prove to be counterproductive and interfered with the prisoners ability to adjust when returning to the community,”  Moss added.  “Thankfully, the Court recognized that restricting visitation like this would do more harm than good.”

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