Prisoner Rights Essay

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The provision of rights and humane conditions for prisoners has been a historically challenging issue. Until the Middle Ages, prisoners were often executed summarily. The Treaty of Westphalia at the end of the Thirty Years War introduced provision for the release and parole of prisoners without harm or ransom. The treatment of prisoners has been a significant issue throughout American history. The colonial emphasis on strict adherence to religious teaching gave rise to “penitentiaries” for those “penitents” who had blasphemed doctrine in any way. Some of the earliest concerns were centered on the treatment of prisoners and the organization of prisoner exchanges during the Revolutionary War.

Approximately 12,000 men, women and children died having been held in inhumane conditions on British prison ships throughout the Revolutionary War, twice as many as died in combat. Early colonial views on prisoners were relatively similar to those in Europe. Thomas Jefferson, who first spoke of the right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” was said to be a reader of Cesare Beccaria’s On Crime and Punishment.

One early prison that was synonymous with harsh conditions was New York’s Ossining Prison or “Sing Sing,” as it came to be known, which was built in 1826. The use of slavery in southern states created a human rights issue that led to the rise of abolitionism. Other  religious groups such as the Quakers became associated with penal reform through the Pennsylvania  Prison Society. While Confederate troops were treated as international combatants rather  than rebels during the Civil War, conditions in some prison camps were appalling for both sides. By the turn of the 20th century, there was a move toward “reforming” prisoners in rural “Big House” reformatories such as San Quentin in California. International treaties such as the Geneva Conventions established parameters for the treatment of prisoners of war in the 1930s and 1940s. The United Nations’ (UN) Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948 contained many articles relevant to prisoners’ rights, such as the right to liberty and the right to vote in elections. The mid-1950s saw the advent of the “corrections” approach to imprisonment, in the aftermath of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners in 1955.

The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners was adopted by the First United Nations Congress  on the Prevention  of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held at Geneva in 1955, and later ratified by the Economic and Social Council by its resolutions 663 C (XXIV) of July 31, 1957, and 2076 (LXII) of May 13, 1977. Although the Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners wasn’t meant to set out parameters for the model prison, it did set out best practices for the treatment of prisoners and the running and management of penal institutions. The main categories dealt with in the Minimum Rules included the following: (1) there shall be no discrimination on grounds of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status, and (2) on the other hand, it is necessary to respect the religious beliefs and moral precepts of the group to which a prisoner belongs.

Among the key issues dealt with in the Minimum Rules are standards for issues such as accommodation, food, medical treatment, discipline and punishment, instruments of restraint, and behavior of prison staff. There is also provision for special categories of prisoners such as those with mental health issues and prisoners held before trial or on remand.

Prior to the 1960s, prisoners’ rights were limited because of an absence of procedural avenues to assert such rights. The federal courts had exercised a hands-off approach regarding the internal operations of prisons. Myriad reasons have been cited for the courts’ previous refusal to intervene in prison matters. A widely advanced explanation for this judicial reluctance  is the courts’ belief that judges lacked the authority to intercede. Premised on a “separation of powers” rationale, the courts maintained that they lacked judicial review of the prison system’s administrative decisions, since prisons are housed under the authority of the attorney general. Further, judges insisted that their  deficient professional  expertise  regarding prison life precluded them from making informed decisions concerning the management of prisons. Another factor contributing to seeming judicial indifference regarding the conditions and policies of prisons was the prevailing perception of prisoners as slaves of the state.

Although rejection of the hands-off doctrine occurred during the 1960s and 1970s, the years most associated with judicial activism regarding prisoners’ rights, those decades do not represent the first time prisoners’ rights were recognized and enforced  by the judiciary.  Multiple  court cases during the late 19th and early 20th centuries contradict the widely held belief that prisoners were without rights. Case law during this time frame reveals that both civil and criminal cases involving unsanitary and unhealthy prison conditions and the use of corporal punishment were heard. Due to the absence of procedural protections afforded prisoners during the 1960s and 1970s through vehicles such as the revitalized Civil Rights Act, prisoners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries relied on procurable remedies such as habeas corpus relief, contempt proceedings, and injunctive relief to redress their grievances.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, the increase in imprisonment for counterculture activists saw prisoners’ rights again become a focus of societal attention. Civil rights activists also became more aware of injustices faced by the poor within the prison system. Clashes between counterculture activists and law enforcement  officials led to an increased mistrust of the criminal justice system, including the prison system. A number of diverse events shaped attitudes toward prisons during this time, including resistance to the drafting of combatants for the Vietnam War; the Attica prison riots in New York, which led to the deaths of nearly 30 prisoners and 10 prison staff; and publicity about the Stanford Experiment, in which students acting as guards came to abuse their fellow volunteers, who had taken the role of inmates, during a 1971 experiment conducted by Professor Philip Zimbardo.

During the 1960s, the courts became increasingly involved in the management of prison affairs. The seminal 1964 court case, Cooper v. Pate, is frequently cited as the impetus for increased court involvement in prison matters, as it established for prisoners their right to access the courts. An appeal from a lower court ruling, Cooper v. Pate involved prison officials’ discretion to deny Muslim prisoners their Korans and the opportunity to worship. In this significant case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state officials can be sued by prisoners  in federal court for violating prisoners’ constitutional rights. Once the federal courts recognized prisoners as persons with veritable constitutional rights, the Prisoners’ Rights movement began to proliferate. The Black Muslims in America’s prisons and jails proved instrumental in precipitating the expansion of prisoners’ rights. In particular, the Muslims asserted their right to access religious literature and to worship as they desired. In addition to prisoners, the movement was joined by some within free society, especially attorneys and prison reform groups.

Prisoners can now challenge various aspects of their incarceration. One area of litigation involves contesting the conditions of prisoners’ confinement. Such challenges have been particularly acute in older facilities where overcrowding and limited corrections funds have given rise to Eighth Amendment claims regarding safety, sanitation, hygiene, nutrition, and medical care. Another area of litigation involves prisoner challenges to both the formal and informal  procedures and rules observed  by corrections staff. These challenges include alleged violations of due process (e.g., prison disciplinary practices), equal protection (e.g., racial discrimination), and First Amendment rights (e.g., religious freedom).

Corrections populations have been differentially impacted by the efforts of the Prisoners’ Rights movement. On account of the decentralized structure and rural locations of jails, which insulate them from scrutiny, jail inmates are more likely than those housed in prisons to encounter brutal conditions. Female prisoners did not begin to utilize litigation  as a means to enact prison  reform  until the mid-1970s, and have not benefitted from the many rulings made in favor of male litigants and limited to conditions in specific prisons. Juvenile facilities remain rife with inadequate services for offenders; reform has been slower due to the lower likelihood that those living in juvenile justice institutions will challenge unsatisfactory conditions.

Though prisoners’ rights have been acknowledged by the courts for several decades, judicial intervention on behalf of prisoners  has waned in recent years. Assorted explanations have been proffered for this reduction in judicial involvement.  Since offender  confinement  is the paramount responsibility of prison administrators, the Supreme Court has generally held that prisoners’ rights should be upheld only to the extent that the compelling state interest of institutional security is not compromised. Changes in the composition of the Supreme Court have also engendered decreased judicial intervention in prisons, as justices less sympathetic to prisoners’ claims have been appointed. Moreover, both judges and legislators have become resistant to those prisoner lawsuits perceived as frivolous.

Recent decades have seen a plethora of issues related to prisoners’ rights, such as conditions at Guantanamo Bay, the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib during the Iraq War, and the use of “rendition flights” in the transportation and debriefing of prisoners. In addition, the disproportionate numbers of African Americans within the prison system, and the high rate of U.S. citizens incarcerated per se, remain issues of concern for advocacy groups.


  1. Chin, Alison. “Hope v. Pelzer: Increasing the Accountability of State Actors in Prison Systems: A Necessary Enterprise in Guaranteeing the Eighth Amendment Rights of Prison Inmates.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, v.93/4 (2003).
  2. Kirklin, Jackson Taylor. “Title VII Protections for Inmates: A Model Approach for Safeguarding Civil Rights in America’s Prisons.” Columbia Law Review, v.111/5 (2011).
  3. Lockard, Joe and Sherry Rankins-Robertson. “The Right to Education, Prison–University Partnerships, and Online Writing Pedagogy in the U.S.” Critical Survey, v.23/3 (2011).
  4. Scott, David. “The Politics of Prisoner Legal Rights.” Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, v.52/3 (2013).
  5. “Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 1955.
  6. Treatment_of_Prisoners.pdf (Accessed October 2013).
  7. Zimbardo, Philip. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York: Random House, 2007.

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