Do Inmates Have Rights? If So, What Are They?

Obviously, going to jail or prison involves having one's rights curtailed. But, that does not mean inmates in the United States are without basic human rights. Even the most hardened criminal has basic rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. If you or someone you know may be facing incarceration, you should know your rights, or what your friend or loved one's rights are or will be while behind bars.

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. Inmates at the pre-trial stage (i.e., those who are in jail awaiting trial) have the right to be housed in humane facilities and cannot be "punished" or treated as guilty while they await trial. All other inmates generally have all the other rights described below.

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 would include, but the Supreme Court has held that such punishments would include, among others:

Drawing and Quartering
Public Dissection
Burning Alive

The Supreme Court also left open that other punishments would not be allowed, so that today, any punishment that is considered inhumane treatment or a violation of a person's basic dignity might be considered cruel and unusual. However, this treatment usually must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis by the courts.

Sexual Harassment or Sex Crimes

Inmates have a right to be free from sex crimes or sexual harassment. This applies to crimes or harassment from either other inmates or prison personnel. Courts have held guards, administration, and even government officials liable for either allowing sexual harassment/crimes to occur or instituting programs of systematically inflicting such conditions on inmates. Such acts might carry both civil penalties and criminal sanctions against those who perform them.

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 both prison officials and the courts. Inmates who have been denied these rights have received civil judgments against prison officials for incidents such as being placed in solitary confinement after complaining about prison conditions.

Disabled Prisoners

Inmates with disabilities are entitled to certain reasonable accommodations under the American with Disabilities Act. This ensures that disabled prisoners receive the same access to prison and facilities as those who are not disabled. However, the accommodations need only be reasonable, not extraordinary, or the best available.

Medical and Mental Health Care

Prisoners are entitled to receive medical care and mental health treatment. As with accommodations for the disabled, these treatments need only be reasonable or "adequate." As a result, if someone has a cavity, they might not be entitled to a filling, but only to having the tooth pulled. Often, even those with life threatening illnesses, like AIDS or various forms of cancer, are given only the minimum treatment necessary to keep them reasonably comfortable, not necessarily to extend their life or combat their illnesses.

First Amendment Rights

Inmates retain basic First Amendment rights (i.e., free speech and religion) only to the extent that the exercise of those rights do not interfere with their status as inmates. If the prisoner's attempt to exercise their First Amendment rights interfere with the legitimate objectives of the correctional facility, like like order, discipline, and security, they will generally be curtailed. As a result, prison officials can open incoming mail, read e-mails, and screen outgoing communications to ensure that it does not contain any messages that could interfere with the facility's objectives. But, prison officials cannot screen out things they consider merely rude or inflammatory to those outside of the facility.


Just as on the outside, 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.

What Rights Inmates Do Not Have

Inmates generally lose their right to privacy in prison. They are not protected from warrantless searches of their person or cell. While inmates do retain their Due Process rights and are free from the intentional deprivation of their property by prison officials, this does not include any form of contraband. Similarly, even if part of a work release program or other employment-like initiative, inmates are not generally subject to employment laws like minimum wage requirements.

If you have questions about what rights an inmate has (or will have) under specific circumstances, you should contact a local attorney familiar with criminal law. You can find a list of attorneys in your area on our Law Firms page at

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Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication at the time it was written. It is not intended to provide legal advice or suggest a guaranteed outcome as individual situations will differ and the law may have changed since publication. Readers considering legal action should consult with an experienced lawyer to understand current laws they may affect a case.

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