Wolff v. McDonnell
418 U.S. 539 (1974)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974)

Wolff v. McDonnell

No. 73-679

Argued April 22, 1974

Decided June 26, 1974

418 U.S. 539

Syllabus

Respondent, on behalf of himself and other inmates at a Nebraska prison, filed a complaint for damages and injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, in which he alleged that disciplinary proceedings at the prison violated due process; that the inmate legal assistance program did not meet constitutional standards; and that the regulations governing inmates' mail were unconstitutionally restrictive. After an evidentiary hearing, the District Court granted partial relief. Though rejecting respondent's procedural due process claim, the court held that the prison's policy of inspecting all attorney-prisoner mail was improper, but that restrictions on inmate legal assistance were not constitutionally defective. The Court of Appeals reversed with respect to the due process claim, holding that the procedural requirements outlined in the intervening decisions in Morrissey v. Brewer,408 U. S. 471, and Gagnon v. Scarpelli,411 U. S. 778, should be generally followed in prison disciplinary hearings, but leaving the specific requirements (including the circumstances in which counsel might be required) to be determined by the District Court on remand. The Court of Appeals further held that Preiser v. Rodriguez,411 U. S. 475, forbade restoration of good time credits in a 1983 suit, but ordered expunged from prison records misconduct determinations reached in proceedings that had not comported with due process. The court generally affirmed the District Court's judgment respecting correspondence with attorneys, but added some additional prescriptions and ordered further proceedings to determine whether the State was meeting its burden under Johnson v. Avery,393 U. S. 483, to provide legal assistance to prisoners, a duty the court found to extend to civil rights cases as well as habeas corpus proceedings. Under Nebraska's disciplinary scheme, forfeiture or withholding of good time credits or confinement in a disciplinary cell is provided for serious misconduct and deprivation of privileges for less serious misconduct. To establish misconduct, (1) a preliminary conference is held with the chief corrections supervisor and the charging party, where the

Page 418 U. S. 540

prisoner is orally informed of the charge and preliminarily discusses the merits; (2) a conduct report is prepared and a hearing held before the prison's disciplinary body,the Adjustment Committee (composed of three prison officials), where (3) the inmate can ask questions of the charging party.

Held:

1. Though the Court of Appeals correctly held that restoration of good time credits under § 1983 is foreclosed under Preiser, supra, damages and declaratory and other relief for improper revocation of good time credits are cognizable under that provision. Pp. 418 U. S. 553-555.

2. A prisoner is not wholly stripped of constitutional protections, and though prison disciplinary proceedings do not implicate the full panoply of rights due a defendant in a criminal prosecution, such proceedings must be governed by a mutual accommodation between institutional needs and generally applicable constitutional requirements. Pp. 418 U. S. 555-556.

3. Since prisoners in Nebraska can only lose good time credits if they are guilty of serious misconduct, the procedure for determining whether such misconduct has occurred must observe certain minimal due process requirements (though not the full range of procedures mandated in Morrissey, supra, and Scarpelli, supra, for parole and probation revocation hearings) consonant with the unique institutional environment and therefore involving a more flexible approach reasonably accommodating the interests of the inmates and the needs of the institution. Pp. 418 U. S. 556-572.

(a) Advance written notice of charges must be given to the disciplinary action inmate, no less than 24 hours before his appearance before the Adjustment Committee. Pp. 418 U. S. 563-564.

(b) There must be "a written statement by the factfinders as to the evidence relied on and reasons for [the disciplinary action]." Morrissey v. Brewer, supra, at 408 U. S. 489. Pp. 564- 418 U. S. 565.

(c) The inmate should be allowed to call witnesses and present documentary evidence in his defense if permitting him to do so will not jeopardize institutional safety or correctional goals. Pp. 418 U. S. 566-567.

(d) The inmate has no constitutional right to confrontation and cross-examination in prison disciplinary proceedings, such procedures in the current environment, where prison disruption remains a serious concern, being discretionary with the prison officials. Pp. 418 U. S. 567-569.

(e) Inmates have no right to retained or appointed counsel

Page 418 U. S. 541

in such proceedings, although counsel substitutes should be provided in certain cases. Pp. 418 U. S. 569-570.

(f) On the record here, it cannot be concluded that the Adjustment Committee is not sufficiently impartial to satisfy due process requirements. Pp. 418 U. S. 570-571.

4. The Court of Appeals erred in holding that the due process requirements in prison disciplinary proceedings were to be applied retroactively by requiring the expunging of prison records of improper misconduct determinations. Morrissey, supra, at 408 U. S. 490. Pp. 418 U. S. 573-574.

5. The State may constitutionally require that mail from an attorney to a prisoner be identified as such, and that his name and address appear on the communication; and -- as a protection against contraband -- that the authorities may open such mail in the inmate's presence. A lawyer desiring to correspond with a prisoner may also be required first to identify himself and his client to the prison officials to ensure that letters marked "privileged" are actually from members of the bar. Other restrictions on the attorney-prisoner mail procedure required by the courts below are disapproved. Pp. 418 U. S. 574-577.

6. The District Court, as the Court of Appeals suggested, is to assess the adequacy of the legal assistance available for preparation of civil rights actions, applying the standard of Johnson v. Avery, supra, at 373 U. S. 490, that

"unless and until the State provides some reasonable alternative to assist inmates in the preparation of petitions for post-conviction relief,"

inmates could not be barred from furnishing assistance to each other. Pp. 418 U. S. 577-580.

483 F.2d 1059, affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 418 U. S. 580. DOUGLAS, J., filed an opinion dissenting in part and concurring in the result in part, post, p. 418 U. S. 593.

Page 418 U. S. 542

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