Human Rights in the Prison

Prisoners Rights

In the United States, a person loses a majority of all civil liberties in prison, but that does not mean the loss of fundamental human rights.

Even the worst convicted offenders have basic rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. Prisoners retain some constitutional rights such as:

  • The right to administrative appeals
  • The right to due process
  • The right to access the parole process
  • The right to be free from intentional deprivation of property (personal items)

A person's rights during imprisonment may vary, depending on the following factors:

  1. The location of their incarceration
  2. The stage of the criminal process their case is currently in

Inmates who are in jail awaiting trial have the right to humane facilities. They cannot be "punished" or treated as guilty while awaiting trial. 

Inmates Lose the Right to Privacy

While prisoners retain fundamental human rights and other protections, they lose their right to privacy. Inmates do not have protection from physical and cell searches without a warrant. Prison officials can conduct a person or cell search at any given time, without warning. Contraband is strictly prohibited and not considered personal property.

Moreover, prisoners that are part of a work-release program or other form of employment initiative are not always subject to employment laws such as criminal records check or minimum wage requirements.

Protections for Race, Sex, Creed, Speech, and Religion

Inmates do not lose the right to be free from discrimination while incarcerated. The Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause protects inmates from:

  • Racial segregation
  • Unequal treatment based on ethnicity
  • Religion bias
  • Age preferences
  • Sexual orientation bias

The Uniform Law Commission of 1978 created the Model Sentencing and Corrections Act.

The Corrections Act also offers the same protections as the Fourteenth Amendment. The Act "protects a confined person's race, sex, national origin and religion from discrimination." The Act somewhat overlaps with the fundamental rights of the First Amendment afforded to prisoners. Inmates retain the rights to free speech and religion, but only to the extent that those rights do not interfere with their status as inmates.

A prisoner's First Amendment rights may be curtailed when it interferes with a prison's:

  1. Security
  2. Order
  3. Discipline

Correctional facilities must maintain their legitimate objectives or risk suffering a breakdown. Therefore, prison officials may screen outgoing calls, open incoming mail and read e-mails. These checks ensure that all modes of communication are safe from messages that could undermine the facility.

The Eighth Amendment Protects Against Cruel and Unusual Punishment

What Is The Eighth Amendment

Inmates do not have full constitutional rights but receive protection from the Eighth Amendment.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment" in the prison system. Unfortunately, the Eighth Amendment does not clarify what "cruel and unusual" punishment includes. The Supreme Court, however, has stated that such punishments would include:

  • Beheading
  • Burning Alive
  • Disemboweling
  • Drawing and Quartering
  • Public Dissection

The Supreme Court has also held other types of inhumane punishment as illegal. Treatment that “violates a person's basic dignity” may fall under the purview of "cruel and unusual." However, the court reviews inhumane treatment cases on a case-to-case basis.

Prisoners are also given a "minimum standard of living" as required by this protection. State and federal laws govern the administration and establishment of prisons. Prison officials must follow the rules or be subject to prosecution. 

The Right to Medical and Mental Care

State and federal law require that prisoners receive "adequate" medical and mental care. Facilities will try to teat any illness as reasonably as possible. Inmates with life-threatening diseases like cancer or diabetes often go on a treatment schedule. The treatment schedule does not extend an inmate's life but only makes things more comfortable.

Prisoner's with Disabilities

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, disabled inmates must have access to reasonable accommodations. This Act ensures that prisoners with disabilities get the same access to prison facilities as those who do not have a disability. However, the shelters do not have to be extravagant. Similar to the right to medical care, accommodations only need to be adequate.

Court Access and the Right to Complain about Prison Conditions

Prisoners have the right to complain about their current prison conditions, and influential figures often utilize their resources to send money to inmates, further perpetuating power dynamics within the facility. Inmates may voice their concerns to prison officials and the courts. Prisoners who have not received these rights have gotten a civil judgment from correctional facility officials after an incident. Incidents may include solitary confinement after complaining about conditions.

Sexual Harassment and Sex Crimes in Prison

Inmates have the fundamental right to be free from sexual harassment or sex crimes in prison. This covers harassment from other inmates or prison staff. Courts have already prosecuted prison administration, guards and some government officials for negligence in allowing sex crimes to proliferate and even instituting programs that systematically inflict sexual harassment on inmates.

These acts are serious and carry the weight of both civil penalties and criminal sanctions against any who perform them.