One of the founding tenants of the governing philosophy of the United States is that each person, U.S. citizen or not, is endowed with certain rights which can never be taken away from them. This extends even to people who have committed crimes serious enough to warrant a prison sentence (or temporary detention, such as a holding cell). Consequently, there are a number of legal protections available to prison inmates, even if those protections are not as strong as those for people who are not convicted felons. FindLaw's Prisoner's Rights section includes information about the legal rights of prisoners, the rights of people who are merely arrested for crimes, and links to related resources.
Cruel and Unusual Punishment and the U.S. Constitution
The Eight Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits conditions for detainees that would be considered "cruel and unusual" punishment, although that term was not clearly defined when the document was written. In 1848, the Supreme Court interpreted "cruel and unusual" punishment to include such ghastly acts as drawing and quartering, public dissecting, and burning alive. While no one would argue that any of these are not cruel or unusual, the definition has been significantly broadened in the intervening years.
Generally, any type of treatment that would reasonably be considered inhumane and in violation of basic human dignity would violate constitutional law. For example, a federal court in Massachusetts in 1995 found that a prison violated inmates' rights by holding them in a prison infested with vermin (such as rats), multiple fire hazards, and a lack of functioning toilets.
The Rights of Prisoners: Overview
Beyond the requirement that prisoners be free from "cruel and unusual" punishment, federal and state laws guarantee other rights to those held in prisons or local jails. Pre-trial detainees -- those who are detained while awaiting trial (and unable to afford bail) -- must be held in a humane environment and not treated as guilty. Prisoners also enjoy First Amendment protections, including the right to practice one's religion; the right to voice concerns over prison conditions; the right to access the courts to air complaints; and other aspects of free speech. However, prison officials may open mail and restrict speech that may compromise order and security.
All detainees in the United States (both federal and state prisons, plus local jails) have the following rights as well:
- Freedom from sexual harassment (and other sexual crimes)
- Disabled detainees may assert their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act
- The right to receive adequate medical care, including mental health services
- Freedom from racial segregation (unless it is deemed necessary to maintain security)
- Freedom from intentional deprivation of personal property
Prison Litigation Reform Act
The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), passed in 1996, limits prisoners' access to federal courts through a number of measures and requires prisoners to pay their own court filing fees. Also, prisoners may lose credit for "good time" if the court determines that a suit was filed solely to harass or if the prisoner lied about the facts.
Learn more about prisoners' rights by clicking on a link below.