Bell v. Wolfish
Annotate this Case
441 U.S. 520 (1979)
U.S. Supreme Court
Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979)
Bell v. Wolfish
Argued January 16, 1979
Decided May 14, 1979
441 U.S. 520
Respondent inmates brought this class action in Federal District Court challenging the constitutionality of numerous conditions of confinement and practices in the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), a federally operated short-term custodial facility in New York City designed primarily to house pretrial detainees. The District Court, on various constitutional grounds, enjoined, inter alia, the practice of housing, primarily for sleeping purposes, two inmates in individual rooms originally intended for single occupancy ("double-bunking"); enforcement of the so-called "publisher only" rule prohibiting inmates from receiving hard-cover books that are not mailed directly from publishers, book clubs, or bookstores; the prohibition against inmates' receipt of packages of food and personal items from outside the institution; the practice of body cavity searches of inmates following contact visits with persons from outside the institution; and the requirement that pretrial detainees remain outside their rooms during routine inspections by MCC officials. The Court of Appeals affirmed these rulings, holding with respect to the "double-bunking" practice that the MCC had failed to make a showing of "compelling necessity" sufficient to justify such practice.
1. The "double-bunking" practice does not deprive pretrial detainees of their liberty without due process of law in contravention of the Fifth Amendment. Pp. 441 U. S. 530-543.
(a) There is no source in the Constitution for the Court of Appeals' "compelling necessity" standard. Neither the presumption of innocence, the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, nor a pretrial detainee's right to be free from punishment provides any basis for such standard. Pp. 441 U. S. 531-535.
(b) In evaluating the constitutionality of conditions or restrictions of pretrial detention that implicate only the protection against deprivation of liberty without due process of law, the proper inquiry is whether those conditions or restrictions amount to punishment of the detainee. Absent a showing of an expressed intent to punish, if a particular condition or restriction is reasonably related to a legitimate nonpunitive governmental objective, it does not, without more, amount to "punishment," but, conversely, if a condition or restriction is arbitrary or purposeless,
a court may permissibly infer that the purpose of the governmental action is punishment that may not constitutionally be inflicted upon detainees qua detainees. In addition to ensuring the detainees' presence at trial, the effective management of the detention facility once the individual is confined is a valid objective that may justify imposition of conditions and restrictions of pretrial detention and dispel any inference that such conditions and restrictions are intended as punishment. Pp. 441 U. S. 535-540.
(c) Judged by the above analysis and on the record, "double-bunking" as practiced at the MCC did not, as a matter of law, amount to punishment, and hence did not violate respondents' rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. While "double-bunking" may have taxed some of the equipment or particular facilities in certain of the common areas in the MCC, this does not mean that the conditions at the MCC failed to meet the standards required by the Constitution, particularly where it appears that nearly all pretrial detainees are released within 60 days. Pp. 441 U. S. 541-543.
2. Nor do the "publisher only" rule, body cavity searches, the prohibition against the receipt of packages, or the room search rule violate any constitutional guarantees. Pp. 441 U. S. 544-562.
(a) Simply because prison inmates retain certain constitutional rights does not mean that these rights are not subject to restrictions and limitations. There must be a "mutual accommodation between institutional needs and objectives and the provisions of the Constitution that are of general application," Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U. S. 539, 418 U. S. 556, and this principle applies equally to pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners. Maintaining institutional security and preserving internal order and discipline are essential goals that may require limitation or retraction of the retained constitutional rights of both convicted prisoners and pretrial detainees. Since problems that arise in the day-to-day operation of a corrections facility are not susceptible of easy solutions, prison administrators should be accorded wide-ranging deference in the adoption and execution of policies and practices that, in their judgment, are needed to preserve internal order and discipline and to maintain institutional security. Pp. 441 U. S. 544-548.
(b) The "publisher only" rule does not violate the First Amendment rights of MCC inmates but is a rational response by prison officials to the obvious security problem of preventing the smuggling of contraband in books sent from outside. Moreover, such rule operates in a neutral fashion, without regard to the content of the expression, there are alternative means of obtaining reading material, and the rule's impact on pretrial detainees is limited to a maximum period of approximately 60 days. Pp. 441 U. S. 548-552.
(c) The restriction against the receipt of packages from outside the facility does not deprive pretrial detainees of their property without due process of law in contravention of the Fifth Amendment, especially in view of the obvious fact that such packages are handy devices for the smuggling of contraband. Pp. 441 U. S. 553-555.
(d) Assuming that a pretrial detainee retains a diminished expectation of privacy after commitment to a custodial facility, the room search rule does not violate the Fourth Amendment, but simply facilitates the safe and effective performance of the searches, and thus does not render the searches "unreasonable" within the meaning of that Amendment. Pp. 441 U. S. 555-557.
(e) Similarly, assuming that pretrial detainees retain some Fourth Amendment rights upon commitment to a corrections facility, the body cavity searches do not violate that Amendment. Balancing the significant and legitimate security interests of the institution against the inmates' privacy interests, such searches can be conducted on less than probable, cause and are not unreasonable. Pp. 441 U. S. 558-560.
(f) None of the security restrictions and practices described above constitute "punishment" in violation of the rights of pretrial detainees under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. These restrictions and practices were reasonable responses by MCC officials to legitimate security concerns, and, in any event, were of only limited duration so far as the pretrial detainees were concerned. Pp. 560-562.
573 F.2d 118, reversed and remanded.
REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 441 U. S. 563. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 441 U. S. 563. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 441 U. S. 579.