Wolff v. McDonnell (1974) | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction

Wolff v. McDonnell (1974) was a landmark case heard by the United States Supreme Court that dealt with the due process rights of inmates in prison disciplinary proceedings.


Wolff v. McDonnell (1974) was a landmark case heard by the United States Supreme Court that dealt with the due process rights of inmates in prison disciplinary proceedings. The case originated from a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, who challenged the procedures used by the prison to discipline them for rule violations.

The inmates argued that they were entitled to certain due process protections, such as notice of the charges against them, the right to call witnesses and present evidence, and the right to a fair and impartial hearing. The Nebraska State Penitentiary argued that the due process protections required in criminal trials did not apply to prison disciplinary proceedings.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that inmates do have a right to due process in prison disciplinary proceedings, although the specific procedures required may vary depending on the circumstances. The Court reasoned that while inmates do not have the same rights as free citizens, they are still entitled to some measure of due process protection to prevent arbitrary or capricious actions by prison officials.

The Court identified several due process protections that must be afforded to inmates in prison disciplinary proceedings, including notice of the charges against them, the opportunity to call witnesses and present evidence, and a written statement of the reasons for the disciplinary decision. The Court also held that inmates have a right to a fair and impartial hearing, although the specific requirements for such a hearing may vary depending on the circumstances.

The decision in Wolff v. McDonnell has had a significant impact on the rights of inmates in prison disciplinary proceedings. It has led to the development of detailed procedures for conducting disciplinary hearings in correctional facilities and has increased the level of scrutiny applied to such proceedings by courts and independent oversight bodies.

However, the decision has also been criticized for placing a heavy burden on correctional facilities, which must now devote significant resources to ensuring that disciplinary proceedings are conducted in accordance with due process requirements. Some have also argued that the decision has made it more difficult for correctional officials to maintain order and discipline in prisons, as it has increased the amount of time and resources needed to address rule violations.


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Last Modified: 04/23/2023

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