In 1987 a male inmate named Leonard Safley met a female inmate named P.J. Watson at Renz Correctional Institution in Missouri. The pair sparked a romantic relationship which was quickly met with disapproval from William Turner, the superintendent of prisons. The punishment for this relationship was to send Safley to Ozark Correctional Center so he could no longer have any interaction with Watson. Once transferred, Safley attempted to contact Watson but was denied all correspondence.
At the time, there was a regulation from the Missouri Division of Corrections that only allowed correspondence between inmates if they were immediate family members. To correspond with an inmate that was not a family member, the communication needed to be related to legal matters or at the discretion of both inmates' classification/treatment team. To marry, inmates needed permission from the prison superintendent.
Safley would not and did not take this lying down. He proclaimed that it was his constitutional right to marry, and Safley contended that being unable to send letters to Watson violated his First Amendment right. The lower courts agreed and ruled in favor, but the superintendent wasn’t pleased and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Safley v. Turner became a landmark case for the rights of the incarcerated. In her majority opinion of the case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor stated, “prison walls do not form a barrier separating inmates from the protections of the Constitution.” This ruling set an important precedent, making it clear that incarceration doesn’t mean a loss of constitutional and civil rights.
Inmates still have their rights violated regularly and are the victims of misconduct, assault, and excessive force. A study of 7,000 inmates located in 12 state prisons found that prison employees committed 21% of physical assaults. But, as we can see from the recent arrests of more than 200 correctional officers in Georgia, something can be done to stop it.
State and local agencies are more than willing to seek justice for the mistreatment of inmates. National organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are fighting daily to protect the basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution. If you or a family member has been victimized while incarcerated, there’s also the option of filing a complaint with the Department of Justice (DOJ).