Section 6.3: Prisoner’s Rights

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Throughout most of the 19th century, American courts did not want to become involved in the matters that occurred in prisons. They were hesitant to intervene in any way when it came to dealing with corrections.  In other words, prisoner’s rights were largely unprotected. 

However, things changed in the 1960s when the courts began to take a more hands-on approach.  Since then, the court has acknowledged that just because a person is in prison doesn’t mean they lose all their rights. Although prisoners do give up certain rights because of their convictions, they do not give up all of them.  The courts are now willing to hear cases involving prisoner’s rights.  

The higher courts have established that prisoners have some constitutional rights that must be respected. In a case called Hudson v. Palmer (1984), the court stated that “While prisoners enjoy many protections of the Constitution that are not fundamentally inconsistent with imprisonment itself or incompatible with the objectives of incarceration, imprisonment carries with it the circumscription or loss of many rights as being necessary to accommodate the institutional needs and objectives of prison facilities, particularly internal security and safety.” This means that even though prisoners have rights, they may still lose some of them if they interfere with the safety and security of the prison.  

In another case called Turner v. Safley (1987), the court recognized that “Prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution.” This means that prisoners are still entitled to certain constitutional rights even while they are serving their sentence. However, if there is a conflict between the safety and security of the prison and the rights of the prisoner, the safety and security of the prison will usually come first.

Political Rights

The term political right refers to the rights related to participating in the democracy of the United States. The most important of these rights is the right to vote. The Constitution of the United States allows states to take away a prisoner’s right to vote if they are convicted of a crime, but it doesn’t make it a requirement. Some states take away the right to vote while the person is in prison but restore it once they are released. However, a few states take away the right to vote for life for people who have been convicted of a felony.

It’s important to note that people who are awaiting trial and are confined to jail, as well as those who have committed a misdemeanor, still have the right to vote. These individuals are usually allowed to vote by absentee ballot, meaning they can vote by mail even if they are not physically present at a polling location.

The Right to Free Speech and Assembly

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution grants every individual the right to free speech, which is a fundamental principle of American democracy. However, when it comes to prisoner’s rights, their right to free speech is limited due to their confinement. Prison administrators must strike a delicate balance between maintaining order and security in the facility while also respecting the prisoners’ constitutional rights.

Although prisoners have free speech rights, these rights are not absolute. The prison administration can restrict certain types of speech that they believe may interfere with the orderly functioning of the facility, such as speech that could incite violence or lead to disturbances. Additionally, there may be situations where a prisoner’s speech could impede the rehabilitation process or put other inmates in danger. In such cases, prison officials can restrict the prisoner’s free speech rights to prevent any harm from occurring.

Similarly, the right to assemble or gather together is generally restricted for prisoners. This is because large gatherings or assemblies can quickly become dangerous and disruptive in the confined environment of a prison. Therefore, the prison administration has the authority to prohibit inmates from congregating in large groups, even for peaceful purposes.

However, prison officials must have a good reason for restricting a prisoner’s free speech or assembly rights. They cannot just arbitrarily silence a prisoner or prohibit any gathering without a legitimate security or safety concern. Any restrictions on these rights must be narrowly tailored to the specific circumstances at hand and must be justified by the prison administration.

The Right to Freedom of Religion

Prisoners generally have a right to the free exercise of religion, but this right can be restricted if the safety and health of the prison are at risk. To be protected, the prisoner’s religious beliefs must be genuinely held, and prison officials cannot favor one religion over another.

However, in reality, some religious practices may clash with prison policies. For instance, certain religious holidays may forbid labor, yet prisoners may be required to work on these days. In such situations, the court has typically upheld prison policies.

It’s important to note that a prisoner’s rights to the free exercise of religion are still protected under the law, even though they are incarcerated. However, these rights may be limited to some extent to maintain safety and order in the prison. For example, prisoners may be required to worship in designated areas, and religious materials may be subject to inspection by prison officials.

Despite the limitations on religious rights, prison officials cannot discriminate against prisoners based on their religion. All prisoners, regardless of their religion, should be treated equally and given the same opportunities to practice their faith.

The Right of Access to the Courts

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This right also applies to prisoners, who are allowed access to the courts for certain types of petitions. The two primary categories of petitions that prisoners can file are criminal appeals, typically through habeas corpus petitions, and civil rights lawsuits. The right to file these petitions is known as the “right of access to the courts,” which was discussed in detail by the court in the Johnson v. Avery case of 1969.

For prisoners, the right of access to the courts is of paramount importance as it allows them to challenge their detention or conditions of confinement. Through this right, prisoners can file appeals and lawsuits against the prison administration for violating their constitutional rights. It provides a means of recourse for prisoners to obtain relief from unjust or illegal actions by prison officials.

However, this right is not absolute and may be restricted for reasons such as security concerns or when the petition is deemed frivolous. Prison officials may prevent inmates from filing a petition if they believe it will jeopardize the security of the facility, and the court may dismiss any petition that is determined to be frivolous or without merit.

The Johnson v. Avery case of 1969 established the right of prisoners to assistance from fellow inmates in preparing petitions and filings. The case involved a prisoner who wanted to help other inmates prepare their petitions, but the prison officials denied him access to do so. The court held that prisoners have a right to receive assistance from fellow inmates in preparing petitions and filings as long as the assistance is not coerced or disruptive to the security of the prison.

Freedom from Retaliation

Prisoners who file complaints, grievances, and lawsuits against prison staff have a constitutional right to be free from retaliation. This right is rooted in the belief that any retaliation against prisoners by the staff hampers their ability to exercise their protected constitutional rights. While this right is vital to ensure that prisoners can exercise their rights without fear of retribution, it can be challenging to enforce.

Prison staff may use different methods to punish or discourage prisoners from engaging in protected activities, such as filing complaints or lawsuits. They can also be subtle in their retaliation by denying prisoners privileges, such as access to recreation or visits with family members. This makes it difficult for prisoners to prove that they are experiencing retaliation, and staff may claim that their actions are unrelated to the prisoner’s protected activity.

Despite these challenges, the right to be free from retaliation is still an essential right for prisoners. Prison staff must ensure that they are not engaging in any behavior that could be perceived as retaliatory, as it can be a violation of prisoners’ constitutional rights. Prisoners have the right to file complaints and lawsuits against staff, and they should not be discouraged or intimidated from doing so.

If a prisoner experiences retaliation, they may be able to file a complaint or lawsuit to seek relief. However, they must be able to prove that the staff’s actions were related to their protected activity. This can be challenging, and prisoners may need to rely on legal assistance to make their case.

Rights During Prison Disciplinary Proceedings

In the landmark case of Wolff v. McDonnell (1974), the Supreme Court established the parameters of prisoner rights during prison disciplinary proceedings. While not all due process rights afforded to criminal defendants were applicable to prisoners in disciplinary proceedings, certain rights were still protected.

The right to advance written notice of charges means that prison officials must provide the inmate with a written notice of the charges against them no less than 24 hours before appearing before the Adjustment Committee. This notification requirement ensures that inmates have adequate time to prepare for the hearing and gather any necessary evidence to defend themselves.

The requirement for a written statement by the factfinders is intended to ensure that the disciplinary proceedings are fair and impartial. The factfinders must provide a written statement detailing the evidence relied on and the reasons for the disciplinary action taken. This information is crucial for the inmate to understand the basis of the decision and to ensure that any decision is based on reliable evidence.

The right to call witnesses and present evidence is designed to allow inmates to defend themselves against any charges. However, the inmate can only do so if permitting them to do so will not jeopardize institutional safety or correctional goals. For example, if allowing a particular witness to testify may pose a security risk or disrupt the prison’s daily operation, prison officials may deny that request.

In contrast, inmates do not have a constitutional right to confrontation and cross-examination during prison disciplinary proceedings. Such procedures are discretionary with prison officials, who may not implement them if they may cause prison disruptions. This means that the inmate may not have the opportunity to question the witnesses against them or to challenge their testimony directly.

Finally, inmates have no right to retained or appointed counsel during disciplinary proceedings. This means that they are responsible for representing themselves or obtaining their own legal counsel if they wish to do so. This provision recognizes that disciplinary proceedings are not criminal proceedings; therefore, inmates do not have the same rights to legal representation as they would in a criminal case.

The Right to Privacy

The right to privacy is an essential aspect of the law of search and seizure. In the landmark case of Hudson v. Palmer (1984), the Court established that inmates do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their living quarters. According to the Court, the needs for institutional security outweigh the inmate’s right to privacy.

This decision has significant policy implications for prisons, as it means that prison staff may conduct shakedowns or searches of an inmate’s living quarters at their discretion. Prison staff are not required to have any evidence of wrongdoing to justify the search, and the search may be conducted regardless of the inmate’s objection.

The lack of privacy protection also means that inmates should not expect any privacy in their living quarters, and any personal items they keep there may be subject to search or seizure. Prison staff may use this lack of privacy protection to prevent the introduction of contraband or other items that may pose a security risk to the prison.

While the Court’s decision in Hudson v. Palmer may seem to limit the rights of inmates, it is important to remember that the need for institutional security is paramount in a correctional facility. Inmates are confined to the prison to serve their sentences. As such, they must abide by the rules and regulations established to maintain the safety and security of the institution.

The Right to be Free from Cruel and Unusual Punishment 

The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment (U.S. Const. amend. VIII). In the landmark case of Estelle v. Gamble (1976), the Court ruled that “Deliberate indifference by prison personnel to a prisoner’s serious illness or injury constitutes cruel and unusual punishment contravening the Eighth Amendment.” This means that prison officials have a duty to provide adequate medical care to inmates and may be held liable if they fail to do so.

In the case of Hudson v. Palmer (1984), the Court determined that inmates do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their living quarters, as the needs for institutional security outweigh the inmate’s right to privacy. This means that prison staff may conduct searches or shakedowns at their discretion, regardless of the inmate’s objection or any evidence of wrongdoing.

The Court also established in the case of Rhodes v. Chapman (1981) that prison conditions that are “restrictive and even harsh” are part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their “offenses against society.” This means that while prisoners are entitled to certain rights, they may also be subject to restrictive and harsh conditions as part of their sentence.

Summary

In the past, American courts were reluctant to interfere in prison matters. However, in the 1960s, courts began to recognize that prisoners still had some constitutional rights while in prison. Although certain rights are restricted, prisoners do not lose all of their rights because of their convictions. In Hudson v. Palmer (1984), the court stated that while prisoners enjoy many protections of the Constitution, imprisonment carries the loss of some rights necessary to accommodate the institutional needs of prison facilities, especially security, and safety. 

In Turner v. Safley (1987), the court acknowledged that the Constitution still applies to prisoners, and they are entitled to certain rights during their sentence. Nevertheless, if there is a conflict between the safety and security of the prison and the rights of the prisoner, safety, and security take precedence.

Prisoners have political rights, such as the right to vote. However, states may revoke this right upon conviction. The right to free speech is limited in prison, and prison officials must balance the need for security with respecting prisoner’s rights based on the Constitution.  Similarly, prisoners’ right to assemble is usually restricted because large gatherings can be disruptive and dangerous. Prisoners’ religious beliefs are generally respected, but the safety and health of the prison may limit their rights. Prisoners also have the right to access the courts to challenge their detention or conditions of confinement, but this right is not absolute and may be restricted for security concerns. Lastly, prisoners have a constitutional right to be free from retaliation if they file complaints or lawsuits against prison staff, and staff must avoid any behavior that could be seen as retaliatory.

The Supreme Court established certain rights for prisoners during disciplinary proceedings in the Wolff v. McDonnell (1974) case. Inmates must receive written notice of charges, a written statement by fact-finders, and the ability to call witnesses and present evidence in their defense. However, inmates have no right to confrontation, cross-examination, or retained or appointed counsel. 

The Court also ruled in the Hudson v. Palmer (1984) case that inmates do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their living quarters, allowing prison staff to conduct searches at their discretion. Finally, in Estelle v. Gamble (1976), the Court established that deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s serious illness or injury by prison personnel is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

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Last Updated:  07/13/2023

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