Many legal protections are available to prison inmates. One of the founding tenets of the United States is that each person — U.S. citizen or not — is endowed with certain human rights.
Some of these basic rights can never be taken away. This is true even for people who have committed crimes serious enough to warrant a prison sentence.
This article includes information about the legal rights of prisoners and the rights of people arrested for crimes. You'll also find links to related resources.
Cruel and Unusual Punishment and the Constitution
The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits "cruel and unusual" punishment. That term was not clearly defined when the Constitution was written.
In 1848, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted "cruel and unusual punishments" to include drawing and quartering, public dissecting, and burning alive. The definition has been significantly broadened in the intervening years.
Generally, any treatment that can reasonably be considered inhumane and in violation of basic human dignity violates constitutional law.
For example, in 1995, a federal court in Massachusetts found that a prison system violated inmates' rights. The inmates were in a correctional facility with fire hazards, a lack of functioning toilets, and vermin (such as rats).
The Rights of Prisoners: Overview
Beyond the requirement that prisoners be free from "cruel and unusual" punishment, federal and state laws guarantee other rights to inmates.
Pretrial detainees — people detained while awaiting trial and unable to afford bail — must be held in a humane environment and not treated as guilty. Prisoners also enjoy First Amendment rights. These protected rights include:
- The right to religious beliefs
- The right to voice concerns about prison conditions
- The right to access the courts to air complaints (sometimes this right is satisfied through access to a law library or jailhouse lawyer)
- Other aspects of free speech
Prison officials may open mail, including from family members, to check it for contraband. They can also restrict speech that compromises order and security.
Additional Rights of Prisoners
All detainees in the United States have additional rights. This is true whether a prisoner is in a federal prison, a state prison, or a local jail. These rights include:
- The right to be free from sexual harassment and other sexual crimes. The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a federal law, is intended to deter sexual assault.
- Rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for disabled detainees
- The right to receive adequate medical care, including mental health services
- The right to be free from racial segregation unless segregation is deemed necessary to maintain security
- The right to be free from intentional deprivation of personal property
Prison Litigation Reform Act
The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) was passed in 1996. This federal law limits prisoners' access to federal courts through several measures.
If you're a prisoner, you must follow grievance procedures and pursue administrative remedies if you believe your civil liberties have been violated.
The PLRA requires prisoners to pay their own court filing fees. Under the PLRA, prisoners may also lose "good time credit," also known as "time off for good behavior," if the court finds an action was filed solely to harass or if the prisoner lied about the facts.
Learn more about prisoners' rights by clicking one of the links below.
Learn About Prisoners' Rights
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