Other Constitutional Rights
The Constitution provides many rights. In addition to historically vital rights against certain forms of discrimination, federal laws based in the Constitution provide the right for most citizens above the age of majority to vote. It also protects prisoners from violations including cruel and unusual punishment, and guarantees them minimal rights to privacy even while incarcerated. While these rights do not get as much attention as discrimination, they are as important, if not more, to the U.S.’s moral and political integrity. Use the resources below to learn more about the right to vote, and the rights of prisoners and other institutionalized persons.
Voting is fundamental to our conception of the United States as a free and democratic country. However, for much of the country's history large numbers of citizens were not permitted to vote on account of their race, gender, or other grounds. The Voting Rights Act enacted in 1965 and extended in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006.
The Voting Rights Act is regarded as among the nation's most effective pieces of civil rights legislation. The Act prohibits racial discrimination in voting and establishes the right to bilingual election materials. Although the 15th Amendment of 1870 prevented state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's race, color, or previous condition of servitude the constitutional amendment was largely ineffective in protecting the voting rights of minorities. The principals expressed in the amendment are repeated in the Voting Rights Act text, but the Act also provided oversight of elections, banned literacy tests and other methods for disqualifying minority voters indirectly, and created legal remedies for victims of voting discrimination.
Despite the success and popularity of the Voting Rights Act it has seen some erosion in recent years. Sections of the Voting Rights Act, particularly those that singled out problematic jurisdictions, have been allowed to lapse or found unconstitutional in recent years as no longer relevant to current conditions.
Those accused or even convicted of crimes still have rights under the Constitution. Some significant rights that prisoners continue to enjoy include the following:
- Inmates have the right to be free of "cruel and unusual punishment" pursuant to the Eighth Amendment.
- Inmates retain First Amendment rights, though they are limited to the extent necessary to preserve order, discipline, and security.
- Disabled inmates have the right, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, to access the same programs and facilities as other prisoners.
There are many other prisoners' rights, many of which relate to due process and the ability to raise grievances relating to the conditions of their imprisonment. However, there are important limitations on many of these rights and some legislation, such as the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), have created limitations. The PLRA, for example, gave the courts the right to dismiss any prisoner lawsuit found to be frivolous or otherwise improper. Each dismissal creates a "strike" and after three "strikes" the inmate cannot file additional suits unless they pay filing fees in advance. Similarly, a judge who finds a lawsuit was filed to harass or was predicated on a misrepresentation can revoke any good-time credit accrued by the prisoner.
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