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4th Circuit hears arguments in SC prison-visit case

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A lawyer for a South Carolina inmate told a federal appeals court Tuesday that the prisoner’s constitutional rights were violated when his visitation privileges were suspended for two years without proof that he had done anything wrong.

Jerome Williams, an inmate at Evans Correctional Institution, claims the suspension violated his rights of association and due process, as well as the constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

“Inmates do not lose all their constitutional rights just because they are incarcerated,” Williams’ attorney, Kirsten E. Small, told a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Andrew Lindemann, attorney for the South Carolina Department of Corrections and prison warden Willie Eagleton, argued that visitation is a privilege — not a right — that prison officials can suspend or revoke for virtually any reason.

Williams’ visitation was suspended based on the suspicion that a visitor passed contraband to him, and that he might have swallowed it. No contraband was found during a strip search and repeated searches of his feces, and Williams was not charged with a disciplinary violation. Eagleton imposed the suspension anyway.

Judge Barbara Milano Keenan noted that the incident occurred in 2007, so the two-year suspension has expired. She asked what the court can do about it now.

Small said Williams wants a ruling on the validity of the policy that led to his suspension.

“Why would we ever say to the state of South Carolina that if you think an inmate has done something wrong you can never limit his visitation?” Judge Dennis Shedd asked.

Small said she’s not asking for such a sweeping ruling, but added that an inmate who complies with prison rules shouldn’t lose visitation.

The court vigorously questioned Lindemann on his view that prison officials, unconstrained by any constitutional right to visitation, have virtually unlimited control.

“You’re saying there could be a blanket ban on visitation without even suspecting anyone did anything,” Shedd said.

Lindemann said that wouldn’t be good prison policy, but there’s nothing in court precedent to prevent it.

“I’m assuming there must be some boundary,” Judge Andre Davis told Lindemann. “I guess you’re saying there’s not. Calling it a privilege takes care of everything.”

The court usually takes several weeks to issue a ruling.

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