Lenient in theory, dumb in fact: Prison, speech, and scrutiny

David M Shapiro*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


The Supreme Court declared thirty years ago in Turner v. Safley that prisoners are not without constitutional rights: Any restriction on those rights must be justified by a reasonable relationship between the restriction at issue and a legitimate penological objective. In practice, however, the decision has given prisoners virtually no protection. Exercising their discretion under Turner, correctional officials have saddled prisoners' expressive rights with a host of arbitrary restrictions-including prohibiting President Obama's book as a national security threat; using hobby knives to excise Bible passages from letters; forbidding all non-religious publications; banning Ulysses, John Updike, Maimonides, case law, and cat pictures. At the same time, the courts have had no difficulty administering the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which gives prisons far less deference by extending strict scrutiny to free exercise claims by prisoners. Experience with the Turner standard demonstrates that it licenses capricious invasions of constitutional rights, and RLUIPA demonstrates that a heightened standard of review can protect prisoners' expressive freedoms without compromising prison security. It is time for the Court to revisit Turner.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)972-1028
Number of pages57
JournalGeorge Washington Law Review
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Law


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