Male inmates of San Quentin Prison who objected to being watched by female guards while showering and using prison toilet facilities were told by a federal appeals court Tuesday that security interests outweigh their rights to privacy.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was marked by a warning from a leading conservative judge that the entire area of prisoner rights should be approached with caution by the courts.
While Judges Thomas Tang and William C. Canby, both of Phoenix, found that the prison practice was not "so degrading as to require intervention by this court," they stressed that convicts do not automatically lose their rights simply because they are in prison.
The two judges ruled in favor of prison officials only after finding that the female guards at San Quentin are usually stationed at a distance from the male inmates when they are called on to monitor them while showering.
Noting that 113 of the 720 guards at San Quentin are women, Tang and Canby agreed that restricting female guards from the occasional viewing of naked prisoners would require a "tremendous rearrangement of work schedules" and possibly create security problems.
"We are satisfied that the facts of this case establish that the prison authorities have devised the least intrusive means to serve the state's interest in prison security," Tang wrote in an opinion joined by Canby.
Although Judge Joseph T. Sneed of San Francisco agreed with the majority decision, he wrote a separate opinion questioning whether constitutional rights should be automatically extended to prisoners.
"Whereas the court assumes that a prisoner, like all other citizens, has a right not to be viewed naked by members of the opposite sex . . . I commence my analysis by recognizing that loss of freedom of choice and privacy are inherent incidents of confinement," Sneed wrote.
"These differences are worth mentioning only because the court's approach can contribute significantly to the further constitutionalization of prison procedures," Sneed continued. "To some extent, constitutionalization has been necessary to preclude gross neglect by governments of their prison systems. Nothing, however, can be carried too far so quickly as a good idea.
"My approach in this case is to place in the constitutionalization roadway a flashing amber light," Sneed concluded.
The 9th Circuit opinion affirmed an earlier ruling in favor of prison officials by U.S. District Judge Spencer Williams of San Francisco, who had dismissed a class-action lawsuit filed by three San Quentin inmates, George Grummett, John Weichman and Richard Johnson.