Bell v. Wolfish

LOCATION: Metropolitan Correctional Center

DOCKET NO.: 77-1829
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 441 US 520 (1979)
ARGUED: Jan 16, 1979
DECIDED: May 14, 1979

Mr. Andrew L. Frey - Argued the cause for the petitioners
Phylis Skloot Bamberger - Argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

A class action lawsuit challenged the legality of conditions facing pretrial detainees in a New York City correctional facility. Petitioners claimed that double-bunking, restrictions on reading materials that inmates were allowed to receive, and required cavity searches and shakedowns amounted to punishment before conviction.


Do certain conditions of confinement violate the individual liberty, due process, and privacy of pretrial detainees as protected by the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments through the Fourteenth Amendment?

Media for Bell v. Wolfish

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 16, 1979 in Bell v. Wolfish

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments next in Bell against Wolfish.

Mr. Frey I think you may proceed when you are ready, now.

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

Thank you.

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

This case is here on writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to review certain aspects of its decision relating to conditions of confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federally operated short-term custodial facility in New York City.

There are five issues presented to you for decision.

The first and perhaps potentially the most significant from the standpoint of constitutional doctrine, involves the constitutionality of double-bunking pretrial detainees in rooms designed for single occupancy.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Frey when you say pretrial detainees I take it you are excluding those who are confined other than in a status as pretrial detainees?

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

That's right.

There are various classifications of inmates that are kept at a facility like the MCC in addition to persons who are being held in lieu of bail or awaiting trial in criminal charges.

There is a significant group of inmates who are -- have been brought in on ad testificandum or ad prosequendum writs to appear in Federal Court proceedings who are prisoners serving other state or federal sentences.

There are persons awaiting parole and probation revocation hearings, and there are sentenced inmates whose sentences are such a short duration that it is deemed desirable to have them serve their sentence in New York.

Potter Stewart:

Well, all those categories of people are people who have been convicted and sentenced to confinement?

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

That's correct.

Potter Stewart:

And since the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit did not find that this was in any way cruel and unusual punishment and no appeal was taken from that, those people are out of the case, aren't they?

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

As to the double-bunking issue.

Potter Stewart:

As to the double-bunking business.

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

That's correct; they are out of the case.

Warren E. Burger:

Now the people who will remain there, who are awaiting trial, by definition they have not been able to secure release on bail or they wouldn't be there?

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

The group of people that we're talking about in connection with the double-bunking issue are people who have been unable to secure a release on bail.

Thurgood Marshall:


Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

Is there any difference in the facility?

Thurgood Marshall:

I know it's new and all, but is it the same group of people?

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

I believe it is generally the same group of people.

Actually there maybe some categories that were kept at West Street and they were shifted to other facilities when the MCC opened because of the population increase of people committed to bureau's custody, immigration, deportation cases and others.

Lewis F. Powell, Jr.:

Are the people being held because the -- they either were not allowed to put up bail or couldn't do it; those have been indicted for felonies or are there some people charged with misdemeanors?

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

I don't know the record.

I simply don't know the answer to that question.

John Paul Stevens:

Mr. Frey before you get into your argument, if this were a state facility the cause of action would be brought under 1983 I would suppose.

Have you given any thought to what's the source of the cause of action that's asserted in this case?