Prison Law

Prison Laws, or Prisoners' Rights Laws, derive from both federal and state law sources and govern the establishment and administration of prisons and the rights of the inmates. Although prisoners, by their very nature, have lost many of their constitutional rights as a result of the commission of a crime, they are still guaranteed certain protections by the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Constitutional Rights of Prisoners

The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects citizens against cruel and unusual punishments. In terms of prisoners' rights, this protection requires that prison officials afford inmates certain minimum standard of living. Additionally, prisoners retain some other Constitutional rights, including due process in their right to administrative appeals, freedom of religion, equal protection under the law (at least, as compared to other inmates), and a right of access to the parole process. Courts have held that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment has been held to apply to prison inmates so prisoners are protected against discrimination or unequal treatment based on race, sex, religion, age, national origin, and creed.

Other courts have held that certain “penumbral” rights, or rights that are not explicitly granted by the constitution, also apply to prisoners. This includes the right to reproduce, right to medical attention, and others.

Other Prisoner Rights

Additionally, the Model Sentencing and Corrections Act adds additional, explicit protections against discrimination. It provides that a confined person has a protected interest in freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, or sex, and should have limited rights to speech and religion.

Courts and Prisons

Courts are usually very reluctant to limit the discretion of state prison officials to classify prisoners (i.e. designate them as maximum or minimum security, solitary confinement, and so forth). Indeed, the U.S. Congress has given federal prison officials complete autonomy in controlling prisoner classification as relates to the conditions of confinement. In other words, such determinations are generally left to the control of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Similarly, courts tend to give broad deference to prison officials regarding prisoners' rights. For the most part, so long as the conditions of a prisoner's confinement are within the sentence and do not otherwise violate the prisoner's constitutional rights, the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution is not triggered and does not require judicial oversight.

Standards of Review for Prison Decisions

When prisoners' rights are in question, and judicial review is required, one of two standards are followed. In cases impinging on an inmate's constitutional rights, the strict scrutiny test applies. Strict scrutiny is the most stringent standard of judicial review used by U.S. Courts. In order to pass the strict scrutiny test, the prison's actions or policy must satisfy three tests: (1) it must be justified by a compelling governmental interest, it must be narrowly tailored to achieve that goal or interest, and it must be the least restrictive means for achieving that interest.

For cases that do not relate to violations of an inmate's constitutional rights, the strict scrutiny test does not apply, but rather, the rational relationship test is used. This is the lowest level of judicial scrutiny, and merely tests whether there is a rational relationship between the action or policy and a legitimate state interest.

For more information on prisoners' rights and prison law, please review the materials found below or contact an attorney in your area. You can find a list of attorneys 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.

  • Which Is Cheaper, Execution or Life in Prison Without Parole?

    Even though many may feel it an inappropriate argument to equate a human life to the expense incurred by the taxpayer to keep that person alive, we have probably all heard someone proclaim in favor of executions that they “do not know why we should have to pay to keep a killer alive!”

Department of Corrections by State

Prison Law - US

  • Corrections Officer / Detention Officer / Prison Warden - Definition

    A corrections officer, correctional officer, detention officer, prison warden, or a prison officer is a person charged with the responsibility of the supervision, safety and security of prisoners in a prison, jail, or similar form of secure custody. Historically, terms such as jailer[1] (also spelled jailor or gaoler), jail guard, prison guard, and turnkey have also been used. These officers are responsible for the care, custody, and control of individuals who have been arrested and are awaiting trial while on remand or who have been convicted of a crime and sentenced to serve time in a prison or jail. They are also responsible for the safety and security of the facility itself.

  • Office of Government Ethics (OGE)

    The Office of Government Ethics (OGE), a small agency within the executive branch, was established by the Ethics in Government Act of 1978. Originally part of the Office of Personnel Management, OGE became a separate agency on October 1, 1989 as part of the Office of Government Ethics Reauthorization Act of 1988. The Office of Government Ethics exercises leadership in the executive branch to prevent conflicts of interest on the part of Government employees, and to resolve those conflicts of interest that do occur. In partnership with executive branch agencies and departments, OGE fosters high ethical standards for employees and strengthens the public's confidence that the Government's business is conducted with impartiality and integrity.

  • Prison Food Law

    This paper examines the history and current framework of prison food law. Whereas food law generally is the result of a complex maze of national, state, and local statutory and regulatory law, prison food is primarily regulated by the courts through adjudication of the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. This discrepancy is explained by the very different political realities faced by prison reform. At the same time, the result is both ineffective and counterproductive. The lack of serious legislation on the issue means that the law is written anyway, only it is done by courts that lack the requisite expertise and resources to do so competently.

  • Prisons - Custody and Prisoner Management

    The responsibility for the detention of prisoners is challenging in its diversity and complexity. Deputy marshals must resolve issues such as: arranging for the hospitalization and care of prisoners with terminal illnesses or contagious diseases; finding lodging for dependent children of prisoner and alien material witnesses; and deciding whether the Marshals Service will grant the transfer of prisoners to state authorities pursuant to state writs.

  • Prisons - General Administration and Management Policy

    Examples of topics in the 1000 series include policy development, forms and records management, public information, external organization and community relations, legal activities including the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts, and safety and occupational health/environment.

Organizations Related to Prison Law

  • American Correctional Association

    The American Correctional Association shapes the future of corrections through strong, progressive leadership that brings together various voices and forges coalitions and partnerships to promote the concepts embodied in its Declaration of Principles.

  • American Jail Association (AJA)

    Since 1981, the American Jail Association has been the only national, nonprofit association dedicated exclusively to supporting those who work in and operate our Nation's 3,200-plus jail facilities by offering high quality training, education, and networking. AJA also serves as an advocate and voice. We monitor and address current and proposed legislation affecting the safety, effectiveness, and bottom line of jail operations, programs, and services.

  • American Probation and Parole Association

    The American Probation and Parole Association is an international association composed of members from the United States, Canada and other countries actively involved with probation, parole and community-based corrections, in both adult and juvenile sectors. All levels of government including local, state/provincial, legislative, executive, judicial, and federal agencies are counted among its constituents.

  • Association of State Correctional Administrators

    The Association of State Correctional Administrators began originally in 1970 as a group of prison directors who shared issues with one another during the annual American Correctional Association meetings. The Association (ASCA) was formally organized, staffed, and incorporated as a New York State not-for-profit corporation in 1985. It has been designated a tax-exempt entity by the IRS.

  • Center for Program Evaluation and Performance Measurement

    The BJA Center for Program Evaluation and Performance Measurement is funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) to maintain a user-friendly online evaluation and performance measurement tool designed to assist state and local criminal justice planners, practitioners, State Administrative Agencies, researchers, and evaluators in: 1) conducting evaluations and performance measurement that will address the effectiveness and efficiency of their projects and 2) using evaluation information to improve program planning and implementation.

  • Correctional Education Association (CEA)

    The Correctional Education Association (CEA), founded in 1945, is a non-profit, professional association serving educators and administrators who provide services to students in correctional settings. The CEA is the largest affiliate of the American Correctional Association.

  • Crossroads Correctional Facility

    CCA founded the private corrections management industry more than 25 years ago, establishing industry standards for future-focused, forward-thinking correctional solutions. A commitment to innovation, efficiency, cost effectiveness and achievement has made the company the private corrections management provider of choice for federal, state and local agencies since 1983.

  • 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.

  • National Institute of Corrections (NIC)

    The National Institute of Corrections (NIC) is an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons. The Institute is headed by a Director appointed by the U.S. Attorney General. A 16-member Advisory Board, also appointed by the Attorney General, was established by the enabling legislation (Public Law 93-415) to provide policy direction to the Institute.

  • Prison Policy Initiative

    The non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative documents the impact of mass incarceration on individuals, communities, and the national welfare. We produce accessible and innovative research to empower the public to participate in improving criminal justice policy.

Publications Related to Prison Law

  • National Prisoner Statistics (NPS)

    Produces annual and semiannual national and state-level data on the numbers of prisoners in state and federal prison facilities. Aggregate data on gender, race, inmates held in private facilities and local jails, system capacity, and persons under age 18 are collected. Findings are released in the Prisoners and Prison Inmates at Midyear series. Data are from the fifty state departments of correction and from the District of Columbia (until 2001, when the District ceased operating a prison system).

  • 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.

  • PrisonTalk Online

    The PrisonTalk Online web community was conceived in a prison cell, designed in a halfway house, and funded by donations from families of ex-offenders, to bring those with an interest in the prisoner support community a forum in which their issues and concerns may be addressed by others in similar circumstances and beliefs.

  • Stanford Prison Experiment

    Welcome to the Stanford Prison Experiment web site, which features an extensive slide show and information about this classic psychology experiment, including parallels with the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph?

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