WASHINGTON (AP) – The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide how far states can go in restricting visits to prison in a case that could further limit the rights of the 1.4 million inmates now behind bars.

The Court – which has previously upheld limits on prisoners’ books, packages and visitors – will decide whether Michigan prison officials can ban visits by some child relatives and former prisoners and can prevent some inmates from receiving anyone other than lawyers and clergy.

Michigan imposed its rules in 1995. They were a response to several visitation problems, including one incident of child molestation during a visit, state Attorney General Jennifer Granholm said in her court filings.

The rules were thrown out by the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said they violated prisoners’ First Amendment rights. “The regulations fall below minimum standards of decency owed by a civilized society to those it has incarcerated,” the appeals court said.

Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, an advocacy and research group that supports alternatives to incarceration, said family visits are important tools in rehabilitating prisoners.

“We know having a supportive family is one of the most critical elements of successful reintegration into the community,” Mauer said. “Generally speaking, we should be very wary about placing any additional obstacles in the way of maintaining those relationships.”

The court is being asked to weigh a state’s ability to control its prisons against the rights of inmates, a balancing act that in the past has tilted in favor of government.

The decision will help clarify which restrictions can be imposed on the 1.4 million inmates in state and federal prisons.

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