Rights of Inmates

Even the most chronic or hardened inmates have basic rights that are protected by the U.S. Constitution. If you are facing incarceration, or if you have a family member or friend who is in prison or jail, you should know about inmates' rights.

The rights of inmates include the following:

  • The right to humane facilities and conditions
  • The right to be free from sexual crimes
  • The right to be free from racial segregation
  • The right to express condition complaints
  • The right to assert their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act
  • The right to medical care and attention as needed
  • The right to appropriate mental health care
  • The right to a hearing if they are to be moved to a mental health facility

The Right to Humane Facilities and Conditions

Pre-trial detainee must be housed in humane facilities; they cannot be "punished" or treated as guilty while they await trial.

Inmates also have the right to be free, under the Eighth Amendment of "cruel and unusual" punishment; the term noted by the Supreme Court is any punishment that can be considered inhumane treatment or that violates the basic concept of a person's dignity may be found to be cruel and unusual. For example, an inmate held in a 150-year-old prison infested with vermin, fire hazards, and a lack of toilets would exemplify a constitutional violation.

The Right to be Free from Sexual Crime

An inmate cannot be subjected to sexual crimes including sexual harassment. The Prison Rape Elimination Act protects prisoners.

The Right to be Free from Racial Segregation

Inmates cannot be racial segregated in prisons, except where necessary for preserving discipline and prison security.

The Right to Express Complaints

Inmates can complain about prison conditions and have a right of access to the courts to air these complaints.

The Right to Assert ADA Rights

Disabled prisoners are entitled to assert their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure that they are allowed access to prison programs/ facilities that they are qualified and able to participate in.

The Right to Medical Care/Attention

Inmates are entitled to medical care and attention as needed to treat both short-term conditions and long-term illnesses. The medical care provided must be "adequate."

The Right to Appropriate Mental Health Care

Inmates who need mental health care are entitled to receive that treatment in a manner that is appropriate under the circumstances. The treatment must be "adequate."

The Right to a Hearing

Inmates are entitled to a hearing if they are to be moved to a mental health facility. However, an inmate is not always entitled to a hearing if he or she is being moved between two similar facilities. A mentally ill inmate is not entitled to a full-blown hearing before the government may force him or her to take anti-psychotic drugs against his or her will. It is sufficient if there is an administrative hearing before independent medical professionals.

Limitations on Inmates' Rights

Inmates retain only those First Amendment rights, such as freedom of speech, which are not inconsistent with their status as inmates and which are in keeping with the legitimate objectives of the penal corrections system, such as preservation of order, discipline, and security. In this regard, prison officials are entitled to open mail directed to inmates to ensure that it does not contain any illegal items or weapons, but may not censor portions of correspondence which they find merely inflammatory or rude.

Inmates are entitled, under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution, to be free from unauthorized and intentional deprivation of their personal property by prison officials. However, Inmates do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their prison cells and are not protected from "shakedowns," or searches of their cells to look for weapons, drugs, or other contraband.

Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA)

Under the PLRA:

  • Prisoners must exhaust internal prison grievance procedures before they file suit in federal court.
  • Prisoners must pay their own court filing fees, either in one payment or in a series of monthly installments.
  • Courts have the right to dismiss any prisoner's lawsuit which they find to be either "frivolous," "malicious" or stating an improper claim. Each time a court makes this determination, the case can be thrown out of court and the prisoner can have a "strike" issued against them. Once the inmate receives three "strikes," they can no longer file another lawsuit unless they pay the entire court filing fee up front.

Note: If the inmate is in risk of immediate and serious physical injury, the three strike rule may be waived.

  • Prisoners cannot file a claim for mental or emotional injury unless they can show that they also suffered a physical injury.
  • Prisoners risk losing credit for good time if a judge decides that a lawsuit was filed for the purpose of harassment, that the inmate lied, or that the inmate presented false information.

Inmates' Rights: Consider Talking to an Attorney Today

Incarceration presents many challenges. If you or someone you know is facing time in prison or county jail, then you need to know about inmates' rights. To find out about whether specific rights have been violated, such as inadequate medical care or blatant acts of abuse, you should speak with a civil rights attorney right away.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified civil rights attorney to help you protect your rights.

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution