Prisoner's Rights Law
What Are a Prisoner's Rights?
Prisoner's Rights Law deals with the rights of inmates while behind bars. Many of these laws relate to fundamental human rights and civil liberties.
Cruel and Unusual Punishments – Every inmate has the right to be free under the Eighth Amendment from inhumane treatment or anything that could be considered “cruel and unusual” punishment. Unfortunately, the Eighth Amendment did not clearly define what “cruel and unusual” punishment includes, meaning much of the definition has derived from case law. Generally speaking, any punishment that is considered inhumane treatment, like torture or abuse, or a violation of a person's basic dignity may be considered cruel and unusual within the discretion of the court.
Sexual Harassment or Sex Crimes – Inmates have a right to be free from sexual harassment or sex crimes, like being raped or molested while in custody. This applies to crimes or harassment from both inmates and prison personnel.
Right to Complain About Prison Conditions and Access to the Courts – Inmates have the right both to complain about prison conditions and to voice their concerns to prison officials and the courts.
Disabled Prisoners – Inmates with disabilities are entitled to certain reasonable accommodations under the American with Disabilities Act to ensure they receive the same access to prison facilities as those who are not disabled.
Medical and Mental Health Care – Prisoners are entitled to receive medical care and mental health treatment. These treatments are only required to be “adequate,” not the best available or even the standard treatment for those outside of incarceration.
First Amendment Rights – Inmates retain basic First Amendment rights (i.e., free speech and religion), but only to the extent that the exercise of those rights do not interfere with their status as inmates.
Discrimination – Inmates have the right to be free from discrimination while imprisoned. This includes racial segregation, disparate treatment based on ethnicity or religion, or preferences based on age, among others.
If you have questions about what rights an inmate has (or will have) under specific circumstances, you can review the materials below and should also contact a local attorney familiar with criminal law. You can find a list of attorneys in your area on our Law Firms page.
Know Your Rights!
- Do Inmates Have Rights? If So, What Are They?
A person's rights while imprisoned vary slightly depending on where they are incarcerated and at what stage of the criminal process their case may be.
Prisoner's Rights Law - US
- ABA - Criminal Justice Section Standards - Treatment of Prisoners
In February 2010, the ABA House of Delegates approved a set of ABA Criminal Justice Standards on Treatment of Prisoners. These Standards supplant the previous ABA Criminal Justice Standards on the Legal Status of Prisoners and, in addition, new Standard 23-6.15 supplants Standards 7-10.2 and 7-10.5 through 7-10.9 of the ABA Criminal Justice Mental Health Standards.
- Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act
The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997a et seq., authorizes the Attorney General to conduct investigations and litigation relating to conditions of confinement in state or locally operated institutions (the statute does not cover private facilities). Under the statute, the Special Litigation Section investigates covered facilities to determine whether there is a pattern or practice of violations of residents' federal rights (the Section is not authorized to represent individuals or to address specific individual cases).
- Criminal Justice Policy Foundation - Clemency Policy
This website is the first comprehensive, nationwide database providing information on clemency and commutation of sentence. It gives state prisoners (and their attorneys, families and friends) the basic information they need to apply to the Governor or other proper authority of the state where a prisoner is housed to get an early release from prison through a commutation of sentence. It provides samples of the actual forms required by the states where they are available.
- First Amendment - Prisoner's Rights to Free Exercise
"Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise (of religion)" is called the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment. The free-exercise clause pertains to the right to freely exercise one’s religion. It states that the government shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion.
- Minimum Standards for Inmate Grievance Procedures
Each applicant seeking certification of its grievance procedure for purposes of the Act shall adopt a written grievance procedure. Inmates and employees shall be afforded an advisory role in the formulation and implementation of a grievance procedure adopted after the effective date of these regulations, and shall be afforded an advisory role in reviewing the compliance with the standards set forth herein of a grievance procedure adopted prior to the effective date of these regulations.
- Prison Litigation Reform Act
Congress added to the barriers created by the Supreme Court when it passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which was signed into law by President Clinton on 26 April 1996. A very long and complex act, it has been described by one leading commentator as a "comprehensive charter of obstructions and disabilities designed to discourage prisoners from seeking legal redress" (Boston). The act contains restrictions on prisoner litigation that are not imposed on any other people who sue for violations of their rights.
- Prisoner Rights in the United States - Definition
All prisoners obtain the basic rights which are needed to survive, and sustain a reasonable way of life (meaning they have the necessities), despite their imprisonment. Most rights are taken away so the prison system can maintain order, discipline, and security.
- Prisoners' Rights Law Resources - Pace Law Library
A gateway to information on prisoners' rights, including federal, state, and international primary and secondary sources, in print and online, with a particular focus on special populations and topical issues.
- Prisons and Prisoner's Rights - Overview
Federal and state laws govern the establishment and administration of prisons as well as the rights of the inmates. Although prisoners do not have full Constitutional rights, they are protected by the Constitution's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment (see Amendment VIII).
- Release of a Prisoner
A prisoner shall be released by the Bureau of Prisons on the date of the expiration of the prisoner’s term of imprisonment, less any time credited toward the service of the prisoner’s sentence as provided in subsection (b). If the date for a prisoner’s release falls on a Saturday, a Sunday, or a legal holiday at the place of confinement, the prisoner may be released by the Bureau on the last preceding weekday.
- Title 18 - Crimes and Criminal Procedure Part III - Prisons and Prisoners
Title 18 of the United States Code is the criminal and penal code of the federal government of the United States. It deals with federal crimes and criminal procedure.
- United States Parole Commission
The mission of the United States Parole Commission is to promote public safety and strive for justice and fairness in the exercise of its authority to release and supervise offenders under its jurisdiction.
Organizations Related to Prisoner's Rights Law
- American Civil Liberties Union - Prisoner's Rights
The ACLU's National Prison Project is dedicated to ensuring that our nation’s prisons, jails, juvenile facilities and immigration detention centers comply with the Constitution, federal law, and international human rights principles, and to addressing the crisis of over-incarceration in the U.S. Since 1972, the Project has fought unconstitutional conditions of confinement through public education, advocacy, and successful litigation on behalf of more than 100,000 men, women and children.
- Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE)
Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) is a grassroots organization that was founded in Texas in 1972. It became a national organization in 1985. We believe that prisons should be used only for those who absolutely must be incarcerated and that those who are incarcerated should have all of the resources they need to turn their lives around. We also believe that human rights documents provide a sound basis for ensuring that criminal justice systems meet these goals.
- Equal Justice Initiative
The Equal Justice Initiative is a private, nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. We litigate on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged with violent crimes, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct.
- Federal Bureau of Prisons
The Federal Bureau of Prisons protects society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure, and that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.
- Just Detention International - Sexual Abuse in Detention
All of JDI’s work takes place within the framework of international human rights laws. The sexual assault of detainees, whether committed by corrections staff or by inmates, is a crime and is recognized internationally as a form of torture. Cases of sexual abuse in detention are not rare, isolated incidents, but the result of a systemic failure to protect the safety of inmates.
- Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC)
LSPC advocates for the human rights and empowerment of incarcerated parents, children, family members and people at risk for incarceration. We respond to requests for information, trainings, technical assistance, litigation, community activism and the development of more advocates. Our focus is on women prisoners and their families, and we emphasize that issues of race are central to any discussion of incarceration.
- National Commission on Correctional Health Care
With support from the major national organizations representing the fields of health, law and corrections, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care is committed to improving the quality of health care in jails, prisons, and juvenile confinement facilities. In this we are aided by an exceptionally dedicated Board of Directors comprised of representatives from our supporting organizations.
- Office of Justice Programs (OJP) - Corrections
According to a study by OJP's Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 7.3 million men and women were under correctional supervision in the nation’s prisons or jails or on probation or parole at yearend 2007. About 70 percent (5.1 million) of the adults under correctional supervision at yearend 2007 were supervised in the community (either probation or parole) while 30 percent (2.3 million) were incarcerated in the nation’s prisons or jails. At yearend 2007, approximately one in every 31 U.S. residents was under community supervision or incarcerated. An estimated 756 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents were incarcerated in state or federal prison or in local jails at yearend 2007, up from 684 in 2000.
- Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP)
OJJDP, a component of the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, accomplishes its mission by supporting states, local communities, and tribal jurisdictions in their efforts to develop and implement effective programs for juveniles. The Office strives to strengthen the juvenile justice system's efforts to protect public safety, hold offenders accountable, and provide services that address the needs of youth and their families.
- Prison Activist Resource Center
PARC is a prison abolitionist group committed to exposing and challenging all forms of institutionalized racism, sexism, able-ism, heterosexism, and classism, specifically within the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). PARC believes in building strategies and tactics that build safety in our communities without reliance on the police or the PIC.
- Prisoners’ Rights Project (PRP)
The Prisoners’ Rights Project (PRP) protects the legal rights of prisoners in the New York City jails and the New York State prisons through litigation, advice and assistance to individual prisoners, legislative advocacy and public education. PRP is a nationally known law reform office and members of its staff regularly consult with other prisoner advocates locally and nationally, testify in legislative forums and work directly with legislators, and work with other professional and human rights organizations concerned with the protection of prisoners.
- The Sentencing Project
The Sentencing Project is a national organization working for a fair and effective criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing law and practice, and alternatives to incarceration. The Sentencing Project was founded in 1986 to provide defense lawyers with sentencing advocacy training and to reduce the reliance on incarceration.
Publications Related to Prisoner's Rights Law
- Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook
This Handbook explains how a person in a state prison can start a lawsuit in the federal court, to fight against mistreatment and bad conditions. The Handbook does not assume that a lawsuit is the only way to challenge poor treatment or that it is always the best way. It only assumes that a lawsuit can sometimes be one useful weapon in the ongoing struggle to change prisons and the society that makes prisons the way they are.
- Journal of Correctional Health Care
The Journal of Correctional Health Care is the only national, peer-reviewed scientific journal to address correctional health care topics. Published quarterly under the direction of editor John R. Miles, MPA, JCHC features original research, case studies, best practices, literature reviews and more to keep correctional health care professionals informed of important trends and developments
- Prison Legal News
Prison Legal News is an independent 56-page monthly magazine that provides a cutting edge review and analysis of prisoner rights, court rulings and news about prison issues. PLN has a national (U.S.) focus on both state and federal prison issues, with international coverage as well. PLN provides information that enables prisoners and other concerned individuals and organizations to seek the protection and enforcement of prisoner's rights at the grass roots level.
- Prisoners of the Census
The way the Census Bureau counts people in prison creates significant problems for democracy and for our nation’s future. It leads to a dramatic distortion of representation at local and state levels, and creates an inaccurate picture of community populations for research and planning purposes.
- Sentencing Law and Policy
Douglas A. Berman gets recognition for the Best Blawg by a Law Professor for Sentencing Law and Policy.