Due Process Rights of Prisoners Essay

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Due process is mentioned twice in the U.S. Constitution. The Fifth Amendment states that no person should be deprived of life, liberty, or property by the federal government “without due process of law.” Similarly, the Fourteenth Amendment states in part that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” In other words, the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment was reaffirmed in the Fourteenth Amendment, which explicitly applied it to the states.

Prisoners who allege that their constitutional rights have been violated can file a claim under Section 1983 of the U.S. Code. However, before prisoners can succeed in a Section 1983 claim, they must demonstrate two essential elements. First, prisoners must show that a person acted under the color of state law, which means that officers derived their authority from their position as prison officials clothed with state power. Second, inmates must show that prison officials caused a violation of a clearly established constitutional or federal right.

Generally speaking, the phrase due process refers to one of two sets of rights: substantive and procedural due process. Substantive due process involves rights related to personhood, such as the right not to be discriminated against or the right to privacy. Procedural due process governs how legal (or disciplinary) proceedings must be carried out. Prisoners most commonly file due process claims that center on procedural due process.

When inmates violate institutional rules, they may be subjected to various disciplinary actions, and efforts are commonly made to match the seriousness of the action to the seriousness of the violation. Some of the more serious disciplinary actions can affect inmates’ sentences (e.g., a reduction of good time credits) and/or temporarily alter their living conditions (e.g., movement from the general population to segregation). As such, disciplinary actions are perhaps the most frequently contested and litigated area in prison.

One of the most noteworthy cases on due process is Wolff v. McDonnell (1974), which involved inmate disciplinary hearings. Prison inmates within the Nebraska Department of Corrections brought suit alleging that Nebraska prison disciplinary procedures involving the loss of inmate good time violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that inmate legal assistance during disciplinary hearings did not meet constitutional standards. The court ruled that inmates are entitled to due process in prison disciplinary proceedings that can result in the loss of good time or in punitive segregation, and inmates are entitled to legal counsel in such proceedings including the use of inmate legal advocates. The court set the following guidelines for disciplinary proceedings:

  • Advanced written notice of the charges must be given to the inmate within 24 hours before appearing in front of the disciplinary board.
  • There must be a written statement by the fact finders as to the evidence relied on and the reason for the disciplinary action.
  • The inmates must be allowed to call witnesses and present evidence in their defense, as long as it does not jeopardize the safety and security or goals of the institution.
  • Counsel substitute (either a fellow inmate or staff) will be allowed when the inmate is illiterate or when the complexity of the issues makes it unlikely that the inmate will be able to collect and present evidence for an adequate comprehension of the case.
  • The prison disciplinary board must be impartial.

In Hewitt v. Helms (1983), the United States Supreme Court examined whether the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause was violated when a prisoner was placed in administrative segregation. Helms was a prisoner at the State Correctional Institute at Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. On December 3, 1978, a riot broke out in the correctional facility. Prison officials removed Helms from the general population and placed him in administrative segregation pending an investigation into his role in the riot. On January 19, 1979, while in administrative segregation, Helms allegedly assaulted a correctional officer.

Helms was found guilty by a prison disciplinary board and sentenced to six months in administrative segregation. He sued in federal district court claiming that his due process rights had been violated as a result of being confined in administrative segregation. Helms argued that because Pennsylvania had created a law that specified a procedure to regulate the use of administrative segregation, it had essentially created a liberty interest for prisoners. Some argue this case is an expansion of the Wolff decision because the court held that when states require (through laws or regulations) that inmates be placed in administrative segregation for certain violations, a liberty interest is created and due process is required. However, the court concluded that the discretionary (as opposed to mandatory) use of administrative segregation with inmates does not create a liberty interest, even though such segregation may entail many more restrictions on inmate freedoms.

The U.S. Supreme Court overruled the position it had taken in Hewitt in Sandin v. Conner (1995). DeMont Conner was charged with violating prison rules when he allegedly directed foul and abusive language toward a correctional officer during a strip search. Conner was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days in administrative segregation. He filed suit in the District Court of Hawai‘i claiming that prison officials deprived him of his Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process rights in connection with the disciplinary hearing. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Conner had a liberty interest to be free from disciplinary segregation and that he had not received all of his due process rights at his disciplinary hearing. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit Court. The majority reasoned that due process no longer depends on whether there is language mandating a particular disciplinary action for a particular violation; the nature of the discipline is what counts. Moreover, only if discipline constitutes an “atypical, significant deprivation” and is not “within the range of confinement to be normally expected” is a liberty interest created and the due process of Wolff required. In other words, if the punishment imposed for misconduct does not entail a significant departure from the basic conditions of a prisoner’s sentence, a prisoner has no liberty interest in avoiding that particular punishment.

In Marion v. Columbia Correctional Institution (2009), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit revisited the Sandin standard. Marion and his cell mate, Snipes, were involved in a physical altercation and had to be separated by correctional officers. Marion was placed in disciplinary segregation. He was subsequently found guilty of violating institutional rules and received 240 days in the segregated housing unit. The court concluded that his confinement did not implicate a due process right because the discipline he received did not increase the duration of his confinement or subject him to an “atypical and significant” hardship, which is consistent with the ruling in Sandin.

The classification of inmates is based on assessments of the risks and problems posed by an inmate as well as the inmate’s rehabilitative needs. It involves making decisions about what an inmate’s custody level should be, at which particular facility the inmate should be placed, where the person will live within the facility, what programs he or she needs to participate in, and other decisions impacting the inmate. Inmates undergo classification shortly after being sentenced to prison and then are reclassified periodically throughout their sentences. Because decisions to transfer inmates between institutions are incidental to classification decisions, court rulings in transfer cases have been applied to classification cases.

In Meachum v. Fano (1976), the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment does not entitle an inmate to a due process hearing when the inmate is transferred from one prison to another, even if the conditions at the receiving prison are substantially less favorable to the prisoner. The court reasoned that the Constitution does not require prisoners to be placed in a particular prison. Therefore, inmates are not entitled to due process protections in matters regarding interprison transfers. In Vitek v. Jones (1980), however, the court ruled that involuntary transfer from a prison to a mental hospital setting involves a liberty interest and therefore necessitates a due process hearing. The court reasoned that a criminal conviction and sentence of imprisonment does not authorize the state to classify inmates as mentally ill and to subject inmates to involuntary psychiatric treatment without additional due process protections. Vitek gave inmates facing transfer to a mental hospital essentially the same due process protections spelled out in Wolff v. McDonnell, plus an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses provided there is no compelling rationale for disallowing cross-examination.

It is also necessary for correctional personnel to search cells routinely for contraband in order to uncover any potential safety or security risks to staff, other inmates, and/or the facility. If contraband is discovered, inmates are subjected to disciplinary action. In Denny v. Schultz (2013), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit considered whether the disallowance of good time credits after the plaintiff was found to be in possession of weapons in violation of institutional rules violated his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Denny argued that the weapons belonged to his cell mate and he was unaware there were weapons in the cell. The disciplinary hearing officer found him guilty of weapons possession and sanctioned him with the forfeiture of 40 days of good time credit and imposed 60 days of disciplinary segregation. The court ruled the recovery of the weapons from Denny’s cell constituted “some evidence” that he was, at a minimum, in constructive possession of the weapons. As a result, the court concluded that the disciplinary hearing officer did not violate Denny’s due process rights when he found him in violation of weapons possession and sanctioned him with forfeiture of his good time credits.

Correctional staff also is responsible for ensuring that they address the “serious medical needs” of prisoners in their care. A failure to do so may result in a Section 1983 action. In the case of Meier v. County of Presque Isle, Paul Meier was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and taken to jail. His blood alcohol content (BAC) was 0.31 percent (almost four times the legal limit).

On intake, he did not appear to be in need of medical attention but the officer on duty contacted the facility’s on-call doctor. The doctor advised the officer to “keep an eye on him,” which she did. The following day he was found unconscious in his holding cell and had suffered from an apparent seizure. Another officer immediately notified her supervisors and an ambulance was summoned to the jail. Meier remained in a coma for six months before ultimately dying. His wife filed suit claiming that her husband’s due process rights to medical care were violated. The court held that (1) although the deputy knew that Meier’s BAC was over 0.30, such intoxication by itself was insufficient to put the officer on notice that the prisoner needed medical attention; (2) the officer called a doctor, who told her to monitor Meier, and the record log of her activity demonstrated that she complied with the doctor’s orders and that during her shift, no signs of medical need manifested; (3) the second officer did not act with deliberate indifference but immediately sought medical assistance for Meier when she found him unconscious. The undersheriff and the detective responded to the call for help, rendering first aid in the way that seemed appropriate at the time; and (4) because the individual defendants were not liable, the county could not be held liable under Section 1983.

Although the legal outcome was favorable to the correctional officers in the Meier cases, the courts sometimes rule in favor of the plaintiff. Norman Smith was arrested for possession of a controlled substance and taken into custody at the Cook County Department of Corrections. He was subjected to routine medical screens that revealed he had elevated blood pressure. He was given a week’s supply of medication. According to Smith’s cell mate, Carlos Matias, Smith exhibited symptoms of illness on the first day. Matias testified that Smith was dizzy and vomiting and asked Matias to initiate a medical request, which Matias did. Cermak provided additional medical services to inmates as needed. Each day, a Cermak Health Services of Cook County med tech is required to visit the tiers and dispense medication, respond to inmate complaints, and collect medical request forms. However, the officers admitted that request forms were not always picked up. Smith’s condition continued to deteriorate, and he subsequently died. His mother filed suit claiming his due process rights to medical care had been violated. The court ruled that Cook County did violate Smith’s due process rights, and Smith’s mother was awarded $4,450,000.

Although most of the prison litigation cases involving the Fourteenth Amendment center on issues of procedural due process, inmates have filed cases alleging that their substantive due process rights have been violated. For example, in Woods v. White (1988) the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin considered whether the plaintiff’s constitutional right to privacy had been violated when prison medical staff, White and Smith, had discussed the plaintiff’s HIV status with nonmedical staff and inmates. White and Smith urged the district court to find that they were entitled to qualified immunity because they could not have known that disclosure violated the plaintiff’s right to privacy. The district court held that Woods retained his constitutional right to privacy in his medical records. In addition, White and Smith were not entitled to qualified immunity because their unjustified dissemination of confidential medical records to nonmedical staff and other inmates did not fall within their sphere of discretionary functions.


  1. Anderson, James F., Nancie J. Mangels, and Laronistine Dyson. Significant Prisoner Rights Cases. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press,
  2. Babcock, William. “Due Process in Prison Disciplinary Proceedings.” Boston College Law Review, v.22 (1981).
  3. “Prisons and Prisoner’s Rights: An Overview.” Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School. http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/prisoners_rights (Accessed September 2013).

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