Prisoners' rights

Overview

Federal and state laws govern the establishment and administration of prisons as well as the rights of the inmates. Although prisoners do not have full constitutional rights, they are protected by the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. This protection also requires that prisoners be afforded a minimum standard of living. For example, in Brown v. Plata, the Supreme Court upheld a court-mandated population limit to curb overpopulation which violated the Eighth Amendment in California prisons.

Regardless, prisoners retain some constitutional rights, such as due process in their right to administrative appeals and a right of access to the parole process. Additionally, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies to prison inmates, protecting them against unequal treatment on the basis of race, sex, and creed, and the Model Sentencing and Corrections Act, created by the Uniform Law Commission in 1978, provides that a confined person has a protected interest in freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, or sex. Prisoners also have rights to speech and religion, to the extent these rights do not interfere with their status as inmates.

Classification

State prisoners have no rights to particular classifications under state law. "Classification," as it is used here, describes the custodial classification of a prisoner once he is convicted, e.g. maximum v. minimum security, solitary confinement, etc. Courts are extremely reluctant to limit the discretion of state prison officials to classify prisoners. Federal prison officials have full discretion to control prisoner classification as affecting conditions of confinement, granted by Congress. Generally, the Federal Bureau of Prisons controls federal classifications.

Americans with Disabilities Act

In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled in Pennsylvania DOC v. Yeskey that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) "provides no basis for distinguishing these programs, services, and activities from those provided by public entities that are not prisons." Thus, because the ADA does not distinguish prisons from non-prisons, it applies to protect prisoners with disabilities, guaranteeing reasonable accommodations.

Prison Litigation

The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), enacted in 1996, requires, among other things, that prisoners exhaust administrative remedies before challenging a condition of their confinement in court. The Supreme Court in Jones v. Bock (2007) clarified the rights and obligations of prisoners regarding the exhaustion requirement.

Judicial Review

Courts tend to defer to prison officials regarding prisoners' rights. So long as the conditions or degree of a prisoner's confinement are within the sentence and not otherwise violative of the Constitution, the due process clause does not require judicial oversight. When prison regulations infringe on and inmate's constitutional rights, the courts do not apply strict scrutiny. Rather, the rational basis test is used to determine whether the infringement may stand.

Last updated in June of 2017 by Stephanie Jurkowski.