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.


More About Prison Law

  • Alternatives to Jail

    Alternative sentencing consists of anything beyond an ordinary jail or prison sentence. It includes a number of different arrangements. The availability of such alternatives is based on the state and local jurisdictions. Additionally, certain types of criminal conduct may prohibit the issuance of an alternative sentence.

  • 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.

  • How Do You Get Out of Jail After an Arrest?

    Generally, one can get out of jail by posting bail. Bail is usually cash or a piece of property pledged to the court as part of a promise that the defendant (the person who has been arrested) will return to court when ordered to do so.

  • What is the Difference Between Jail and Prison?

    At the most basic level, the fundamental difference between jail and prison is the length of stay for inmates.

  • 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!"

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