7.11. Prisoner Rights

Kate McLean

It may come as a surprise to hear that the legal concept of prisoner rights in the United States is less than a century old, dating back to the 1940s (ex parte Hull, 1941). Prior to this time, the courts recognized and operated according to the “hands off” doctrine, or the idea that the courts should not interfere in the treatment of prisoners in U.S. jails or prisons; previous to the 1941 Hull decision, state and federal prisoner were routinely denied access to the courts, where they might litigate the conditions of their confinement. Still, it was not until the broader “due process revolution,” instigated by the Warren Court that many protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights were extended to prisoners. The sections below outline some of the most fundamental prisoner rights that have been formalized by the courts, although this list is not exhaustive.

The right to free speech and religion

The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that inmates also enjoy the right to the freedom of religion protected by the 1st amendment, so long as their beliefs are in fact “religious” and “sincerely held.” At the same time, inmates’ religious practice may be limited, if it can be shown to interfere with institutions’ “penological interests.” Overall, Courts have ruled in favor of inmates’ access to religious texts, attendance of religious services, and access to specific religious diets. For those interested in more detail, an excellent overview of the case law related to inmates’ freedom of religion can be found here.

The right to adequate nutrition

Numerous court cases have affirmed that prison conditions that deprive inmates of the “basic necessities of life” violate the 8th amendment; thus, such cases have found that prisons must provide inmates with an adequate and varied diet, particularly if they prisoners are required to work. At the same time, the courts have denied prisoners’ rights to specific diets (unless they are necessary for religious observance), and have identified few meals or foods that violate inmates’ 8th amendment rights (including the infamous “Nutraloaf“).

The right to medical care

In several landmark cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that penal institutions cannot show “deliberate indifference” to inmates health, but instead must provide necessary medical care; to ignore inmates’ medical needs represents a violation of the 8th amendment (see Estelle v. Gamble, 1976). More recently, the Court has recognized severe prison overcrowding as a violation of prisoners’ 8th amendment rights, if such prison conditions interfere with the delivery of necessary medical care. In their 2011 decision in Brown v. Plata, the Court mandated that California reduce state prison overcapacity to 137.5%, in order to meet their 8th amendment obligations.

The right to protection against violence

The “deliberate indifference” standard formalized in Estelle v. Gamble has also been applied when prisoners’ are left vulnerable to violence from other inmates. In 1994, the Court recognized that the 8th amendment rights of Dee Farmer, a transgender inmate incarcerated within a federal men’s facility in Indiana, had been violated when prison officials had allowed her to be repeatedly sexually assaulted by other inmates, leading to her infection with HIV.


Prisoner Rights in Action?

In September 2022, 80% of inmates incarcerated in Alabama’s state prison system went on strike, leaving their jobs as cooks, cleaners, and other prison maintenance workers. The strike was intended to draw attention to the “deplorable conditions” of their incarceration – visible mold, inadequate food, horrific violence, and severe overcrowding. As you will read in the article below, the U.S. Justice Department even published a scathing report of Alabama’s prisons in 2019, which highlighted (among other things) levels of occupancy exceeding 180%, and high rates of violence; the report even described conditions as violating the 8th amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment. [See images depicting Alabama’s prison violence here.]

Read coverage of the Alabama prisoners’ strike from the New York Times here, and consider:

-If conditions in Alabama’s prisons are labelled “unconstitutional” by a federal agency, why haven’t they changed?

-Protester demands, as well as the Justice report, indicate violations of prisoners’ rights to adequate food, protection from violence, and necessary medical care. Reviewing the above photos and story, what other rights should exist, in your opinion?


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Introduction to the U.S. Criminal Justice System Copyright © 2019 by Kate McLean is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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