In Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Union, 433 U.S. 119 (1977), the Supreme Court upheld state prison restrictions on union activities.
Prisoners’ Labor Union barred from meeting and distributing material
The North Carolina Department of Corrections prohibited inmates from soliciting other inmates to join the North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union, barred meetings of the union, and refused to allow bulk mailings to inmates for distribution to other inmates. The union challenged these restrictions in federal court, alleging the restrictions violated their First Amendment free speech and free assembly rights.
The union also alleged that prison officials violated their equal protection rights because they accorded these privileges to other groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and the Jaycees. Prison officials, including appellant David Jones, the Secretary of the Department of Correction, contended the restrictions were necessary for prison security.
Supreme Court concluded restrictions were reasonable
A three-judge federal district court ruled in favor of the prisoners’ union, finding that the no solicitation ban was too restrictive and not necessary to advance prison security concerns. The prison officials appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed and upheld the restrictions.
Writing for the majority, Justice William H. Rehnquist criticized the lower court for not giving appropriate deference to prison officials and “appropriate recognition to the peculiar and restrictive circumstances of penal confinement.” He applied a rational basis analysis, concluding that the restrictions were reasonable because prison officials could conceivably believe that allowing prisoner union activities could stir up trouble among the inmates.
“The case of a prisoners’ union, where the focus is on the presentation of grievances to, and encouragement of adversary relations with, institution officials surely would rank high on anyone’s list of potential trouble spots,” Rehnquist wrote.
The majority also rejected the equal protection claims, noting that the Jaycees and Alcoholics Anonymous did not have “the avowed intent to pursue an adversary relationship with the prison officials.”
Chief Justice Warren E. Burger’s concurrence emphasized that prison reforms must come not from the federal courts but from prison administrators, who have more expertise in these matters.
Dissenters disagreed with the rational-basis standard
Justice John Paul Stevens concurred with the bulk of the majority opinion but dissented on the solicitation restriction because he believed it was too broad. Justice Thurgood Marshall, joined by William J. Brennan Jr., dissented and criticized the majority for applying the rational-basis standard. “Yet in no First Amendment case of which I am aware has the Court deferred to the judgment of such [prison] officials simply because their judgment was ‘rational.’ ”
The Court’s opinion in Jones was a harbinger for future Supreme Court prisoner rights decisions such as Turner v. Safley (1987) and Overton v. Bazzetta (2003), in which the Court exercised broad deference and applied a reasonableness standard.
David L. Hudson, Jr. is a law professor at Belmont who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment entitled Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded (ABC-CLIO, 2017). This article was originally published in 2009.