Wilkinson v. Austin

PETITIONER:Reginald A. Wilkinson, Director, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, et al.
RESPONDENT:Charles E. Austin, et al.
LOCATION:Texas State Capitol

DOCKET NO.: 04-495
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 543 US 1032 (2004)
GRANTED: Dec 10, 2004
ARGUED: Mar 30, 2005
DECIDED: Jun 13, 2005

Deanne E. Maynard – argued the cause for Petitioners
Jules Lobel – argued the cause for Respondents
James M. Petro – argued the cause for Petitioners

Facts of the case

When Ohio’s highest security prison first opened, no official policy governed placement there, resulting in haphazard and erroneous placements. Ohio ultimately issued the “New Policy,” which required formal procedures for evaluating whether prisoners classified for placement into the facility. The New Policy also required a three-tier review process after a recommendation for Supermax placement was made. For instance, the state had to explain a placement recommendation to an inmate and that inmate had to have an opportunity for rebuttal at a hearing. Prisoners in the facility sued in federal district court, alleging the prison placement policy violated the 14th Amendment’s due process clause. The court agreed that the New Policy violated due process and ordered elaborate and far-reaching modifications to the policy. The Sixth Circuit affirmed but set aside the substantive modifications on the ground they exceeded the court’s authority.


Did the placement policies for Ohio’s highest security prison violate the 14th Amendment’s due process clause?

Media for Wilkinson v. Austin

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 30, 2005 in Wilkinson v. Austin

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 13, 2005 in Wilkinson v. Austin

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion in Wilkinson against Austin will be announced by Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

This case Wilkinson versus Austin involves Ohio prisons.

High security prisons that are designed for total isolation are known in prison terminology as Supermax prisons.

A Supermax prison is designed to segregate the most dangerous prisoners from the general prison population.

This case concerns the process by which Ohio and its prison officials assign prisoners to the Supermax facility.

The case began when a class if inmates, some of whom were and some of whom had been in the Ohio Supermax filed suit in the United States District Court against Ohio and its prison officials.

The inmates alleged among other things that the Supermax assignment system and the confinement there violated due process principles and the opinion refers to the old policy and the new policy that Ohio had for assignments.

When the inmates filed suit, the policy known as the old policy was in effect, and under that policy haphazard and erroneous placements to Supermax had occurred.

Now, some inmates were denied any notice they were being assigned to Supermax or any opportunity to be heard on the matter.

Now, on the eve of trial, Ohio promulgated a revised policy and this is a new set of guidelines that is called in the opinion by the litigates the new policy.

The new policy provided more guidance regarding the factors to be considered in placement decisions and it afforded inmates more procedural protections against erroneous placement.

The District Court found first that the inmates have a protected liberty interest in avoiding assignment to Supermax and it held their due process rights had been violated under the old policy and the unwritten versions that preceded, and it also held that Ohio’s new policy while it provided some more procedural safeguards, even so was inadequate to meet due process requirements.

After trial, the District Court also ordered a number of substantive and procedural modifications to the new policy.

The Court of Appeals for this Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s holding that the inmates have a liberty interest and it also affirmed the procedural modifications the court had made to the new policy.

It did reverse the District Court’s substantive modifications; substantive modifications imposed by the District Courts were to specify a minimum amount of drugs that the prison must have before he can be defined to Supermax.

But this was reversed this part involving substantive modifications by the Court of Appeals and that part of the ruling is not before us.

We did grant certiorari to consider what level of process the Fourteenth Amendment requires Ohio to follow in making Supermax assignments.

The resolution of the case presents two questions and the first is whether the inmates have a protected liberty interest in avoiding transfer to Supermax.

Our earlier opinion in a case called Sandin versus O’Conner provides us the relevant instruction.

In Sandin, we held that the liberty interest exists in avoiding restrictive prison conditions only where the nature of those conditions themselves impose an atypical and significant hardship on an inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life.

Now, we think that the conditions at Ohio Supermax do impose just such a hardship.

The confinement conditions are more restrictive than any other form of incarceration in Ohio including those prisoners on death row or on disciplinary segregation.

Inmates must remain in their cells which are 7×14 feet for 23 hours a day and during the one hour per day that inmates are permitted to leave the cells, they have access only to a small indoor recreation space.

A light remains on in the inmate’s cell for 24-hours a day and although it may be dimmed, an inmate who attempts to shield the light even to sleep is subject to further discipline.

Inmates have hardly any human contact even to the point that conversation is not permitted from cell to cell and the cells are constructed too so that sound cannot carry from on cell to the other.

Opportunities for visitation are very rare and conducted through glass walls.

Aside from these severe conditions, placement at Supermax is for an indefinite period limited only by an inmate’s sentence.

Inmates otherwise eligible for parole lose that eligibility while there.

Although, any of these conditions standing alone might not be sufficient to create a liberty interest in avoiding assignment to Supermax, taken together, we think they do.

The second part of the analysis is whether the procedures Ohio provides satisfied basic due process principles to safeguard this liberty interest.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Evaluating the efficiency of particular prison procedure requires consideration of the three factors we set forth in our decision in Mathews versus Eldridge: The first is the inmate’s interest, the second is the risk of erroneous deprivation and the third is the state’s interest.

Application of these three factors demonstrates Ohio’s new policy does provide a sufficient level of due process.

The opinion discusses the problem of gang violence in prisons.

Supermax prisons are in part a response to the increase in prison violence by prison gangs which impose an increasing threat to prison security.

Clandestine, organized, fuel by race based hostility and committed to fear and violence as a means of disciplining their own members and their rival, these gangs seek nothing less than to control prison life and to extend their power outside prison walls.

Murder of an inmate, a guard, or one of the family members on the outside is a common form of gang discipline and control.

Committing murder can even be a condition of the gang membership.

Testifying against or otherwise, informing on gang activities can invite a death sentence for the informant.

Given the circumstances prison administrators face, we think that informal non-adversary procedures are all that are required in making assignments to Supermax.

Ohio’s new policy provides such informal non-adversary procedures and no further procedural modifications were in order.

The Court of Appeals was correct to find the inmates possess a liberty interest in avoiding assignment at Supermax but it was incorrect to sustain the procedural modifications ordered by the District Court.

So, we affirm in part and reverse in part the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

We remand the case for further proceedings consistent with our opinions and the opinion of the Court is unanimous.