Turner v. Safley

PETITIONER: William R. Turner, et al.
RESPONDENT: Leonard Safley, et al.
LOCATION: Renz Prison

DOCKET NO.: 85-1384
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-1987)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 482 US 78 (1987)
ARGUED: Jan 13, 1987
DECIDED: Jun 01, 1987
GRANTED: May 27, 1986

Floyd R. Finch, Jr. - on behalf of the Respondent
Henry Thomas Herschel - on behalf of the Petitioners

Facts of the case

In the late 1970s, Renz Correctional Institution converted to a “complex prison”. Generally, female prisoners at Renz were medium and maximum security level offenders, while most male inmates were minimum security offenders. Leonard Safley was a male inmate at Renz, and P.J. Watson was a female inmate. They met at Renz, where they became romantically involved; Watson was then transferred to Ozark Correctional Center because of this relationship. Prison authorities rebuffed all of Safley’s attempts to directly contact Watson.

A Missouri Division of Corrections regulation permitted correspondence between inmates who were immediate family members, but correspondence between inmates who were not family members was only allowed if 1) it related to legal matters or 2) at the discretion of the classification/treatment team of both inmates. Another regulation only permitted inmates to marry with the permission of the prison superintendent, and specified that permission should only be given when there was a compelling reason to do so.

The district court certified plaintiffs as a class including inmates at Renz who desired to correspond with inmates at other prison facilities. This class also included persons who wished to marry inmates at Missouri correctional facilities and whose right to marry had been allegedly violated by the DoC. Plaintiffs filed an action against Renz's Superintendent William Turner and others for injunctive relief and damages. The district court applied strict scrutiny to both DoC restrictions. It held that the restriction on correspondence was overly broad and capriciously applied, and that the marriage restriction violated inmates’ constitutional right to marry. The United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit, affirmed, further holding that neither restriction was the narrowest means of addressing the DoC’s security concerns.


1. Was the Missouri Department of Corrections’ restriction limiting correspondence between inmates a violation of those prisoners’ First Amendment rights?

2. Was the Missouri Department of Corrections' restriction limiting prisoners’ ability to marry a violation of prisoners’ constitutional right to marry?

Media for Turner v. Safley

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 13, 1987 in Turner v. Safley

William H. Rehnquist:

We will hear argument first this morning in No. 85-1384, William R. Turner v. Leonard Safley.

Mr. Herschel, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Henry Thomas Herschel:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

Initially, I'm going to go through a brief background of the case and the facts.

I will then proceed to the correspondence issue, and then discuss the marriage issue.

At present, unless there's questions concerning the findings of facts and conclusions of law, I'll leave those for the argument on the briefs.

The issue in this case is prisons; specifically, about the level of deference that is going to be given to prison officials to act upon... to act upon legitimate security... their legitimate security interests concerning the regulation of inmate-to-inmate correspondence and inmate marriages.

This is a class action that was brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983, which challenged the Missouri Department of Corrections regulations that... regulations concerning the inmate-to-inmate correspondence and inmate marriage problems.

The District Court and... the District Court found that those regulations were far more restrictive than necessary... for necessariness, and held them unconstitutional--

This holding was affirmed by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The visit... the challenges to the Missouri visitation regulation, and a damage issue, were found in favor of the defendants, and were not appealed.

The Renz Correctional Center is a complex prison.

What I mean to... what I mean to say when I say a complex prison is that it's a co-correctional, multilevel security institution.

At the Renz Correctional Center, at the time of this trial, we had male and female inmates; we had female maximum security inmates and medium security inmates; and male minimum security inmates.

The... the Renz Correctional Center was also used to hide inmates within the system.

For example, if somebody was concerned about their life or something along those lines, the Renz Center would be used to hide them, because the minimum security men were located there.

At the present time, we have undergone some changes.

The Renz Correctional Center medium security women have been moved to another institution, along with a number of the maximum security.

Eventually there will be a maximum security unit for women at another location, and we will move the rest of the women who are now housed at Renz to that institution.

However, Renz will always be a place where we will have some women for medical care and for special security problems.

But they'll never have the number of women that it had at the time of this trial, which was approximately 250.

The regulations at issue are as follows.

The correspondence issue in effect at the... at that time did not permit correspondence between inmates in different institutions, whether it was in-state or out-of-state, unless the adjustment classification team, which was a team of case workers who reviewed their files before they permitted anyone to correspond, to correspond with any other inmate in another institution, unless it was in their best interests.

In addition, they were permitted to correspond with relatives who are also incarcerated within... within the system.

The marriage regulation did not prohibit... did not permit the marriage of... the marriage of inmates unless the superintendent determined there was a compelling reason.

In other words, the burden was on the inmate to come forward to the superintendent and present him with a compelling reason.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals... and I believe the evidence would sustain that... is that basically it was a rather narrow interpretation; it was only going to be on the basis that there was a child involved, or through a previous relationship before they were incarcerated that the prison official or the superintendent would permit the marriage while it was... while they were in... in prison.

The appellant... the appellants in this case request... or the petitioner in this case requests the court permit deference to the prison officials, and that the court require that inmates prove that the prison officials have exaggerated their response to the penological interest before they determine that the regulation is overbroad or that it's unconstitutional.

The respondents, on the other hand, would burden the prison official to demonstrate a pattern of security concerns before the regulation could be upheld.

Then there would be a determination of whether the exercise of the right involved, the inmate exercise, is in someway inherently dangerous, or presumptively dangerous.