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Justices do about-face on inmate rights


WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, saying it had taken a wrong turn 12 years ago and since then had given prison inmates too many legal rights and privileges, decided yesterday to sharply limit prisoners' challenges to the warden's rules.

The 5-4 decision appeared to give prison officials wider discretion to punish inmates for misconduct and to handle inmate grievances over prison conditions.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the majority, said the time had come for the court to end the approach it has taken since 1983 in expanding the rights of inmates to challenge the way prison rules are enforced or broken.

Many of the rules, the chief justice said, were put in effect by wardens to help manage the institution and control their staff. But, he added, prisoners have been allowed to turn those rules around, claiming that the regulations actually created inmate rights and privileges that the prisons could not violate.

Such rules, the court majority declared, often were "not designed to confer rights on inmates," but lower courts -- following the Supreme Court's lead -- had treated the rules as if they were. As a result, violations of those rules by prison staff were turned into a constitutional issue over inmate rights, the majority noted.

The chief justice said that, in a series of rulings starting in 1983, the court had found that prison guidelines seemed to grant inmates some expansion of their rights or privileges. The guidelines involved such things as when an inmate could be put in disciplinary confinement, could be transferred to another institution or could have visitors.

"The court," Mr. Rehnquist said, "encouraged prisoners to comb regulations in search of mandatory language on which to base entitlements to various state-conferred privileges." Lower courts then enforced those entitlements. That, the majority said yesterday, had to stop.

From now on, the chief justice said, the court will allow inmates to challenge prison rules, or violations of those rules, only when the inmates are subjected to "atypical and significant hardship." The result, he added, would have to bring "a major disruption" of the inmate's life in prison.

The court did not define those phrases further. But it did illustrate what the phrases might mean in a specific case: The court decided that an order that sends an inmate to solitary confinement for misconduct does not create such a loss of freedom or rights of the inmate as to be a real hardship.

So, the court went on, the inmate has no right to procedural safe guards before being confined alone in a cell for 30 days, with only 50 minutes a day out of the cell for exercise and a shower while wearing leg irons and a waist chain.

The case grew out of an incident in a Hawaii prison, the Halawa Correctional Facility, in 1987. An inmate, DeMont R. D. Conner, was ordered to solitary confinement after he resisted a guard and used profanity during a strip search.

The majority that ruled against Conner's claim was the court's most conservative members: the chief justice and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Dissenting were Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens.

Also yesterday:

* The court appeared to end a four-year struggle over custody of a 4-year-old Illinois boy, known in legal papers as "Baby Richard." The Illinois Supreme Court ordered the boy turned over to his biological father. That was done April 30, wiping out the adoption rights that a Schaumburg, Ill., couple had had to Richard.

The couple had raised the boy since his birth in 1991, but the state's highest court said the biological father had greater rights to raise his child. The state court refused to apply a state law that was passed explicitly to protect the couple's right to keep the boy.

Illinois' governor and two U.S. senators joined the boy and the Schaumburg couple in urging the Supreme Court to review the case. The court refused, without comment.

* Rebuffing the Clinton administration, the court declined to review a lower-court decision that said the federal law against age bias on the job protects older workers only from intentional discrimination, not from actions that are age-neutral but have harsher impact on senior workers. The issue arose in a dispute over a Chicago-area private school's refusal to hire a 63-year-old man as a teacher.

* It turned down a request to require the federal government to allow Haitian children who are refugees at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to enter the United States under the same rules governing Cuban children.

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