Prisoners' Rights (Update 1)

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Upon conviction and imprisonment, a profound change occurs in a person's legal status. Duly convicted prisoners lose entirely many freedoms enjoyed by free persons; however, they do not relinquish all rights. As the Supreme Court noted in Wolff v. McDonnell (1974), "though his rights may be diminished by the needs and exigencies of the institutional environment, a prisoner is not wholly stripped of constitutional protections when he is imprisoned for crime. There is no iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country."

Prisoners always retain the right to the minimal conditions necessary for human survival (i.e., the right to food, clothing, shelter, and medical care). The right of the prisoners to a non-life-threatening environment goes beyond the provision of life's necessities; it includes their right to be protected from each other and from themselves. On this last point, lower courts have been more responsive to prisoners' claim than Supreme Court and have found that prison crowding is unconstitutional. As a federal district court in Florida asserted in Costello v. Wainwright (1975), prison crowding "endangers the very lives of the inmates" and therefore violates the Eighth Amendment's guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court's reluctance to follow the lower courts is understandable, for emperical studies flatly contradict the assertion that crowding is life-threatening. Not only are the overall death rates, accidental death rates, and homicide and suicide rates of inmates two or three times lower than for comparable groups of parolees (controlling for age, race, and sex), but no statistically significant correlations exist between measures of crowding (density and occupancy) and inmate death rates.

Beyond agreement that inmates have the minimal right to a non-life-threatening environment, legal debate rages. Some courts and legal scholars have taken their cues from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Coffin v. Reichard (1944) and have declared that prisoners retain all the rights of ordinary citizens except those expressly or by necessary implication taken by law. The Supreme Court's decision in procunier v. martinez (1974) followed this line of reasoning when it held that it would employ a strict scrutiny standard of review to evaluate claims that the rights of prisoners were being denied. It declared that it would sustain limitations of prisoners' rights only if they furthered an important or substantial governmental interest and if they were no greater than necessary to protect that interest.

Fundamentally opposed to Coffin and Procunier is the view, now dominant on the Supreme Court, that inmates are without rights except for those conferred by law or necessarily implied and that, as a consequence, courts should employ the reasonableness test to assess the legitimacy of restrictions on what prisoners assert to be their rights. In Turner v. Safley (1987) the Supreme Court articulated this position and rejected the use of strict scrutiny in prisoners' rights cases. Writing for a five-member majority, Justice sandra day o'connor declared that "when a prison regulation impinges on inmates' constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests." O'Connor announced a four-prong test for measuring reasonableness: (1) Is there "a "valid, rational connection' between the prison regulation and the legitimate government interest put forward to justify it?" (2) "Are alternative means of exercising the right … open to prison inmates?" (3) What is "the impact [that] accommodation of the asserted constitutional right will have on guards and other inmates, and on the allocation of prison resources generally"? (4) Is "the absence of ready alternatives … evidence of reasonableness of the prison regulation"? Employing this four-prong test, Justice O'Connor rejected a first amendment challenge to a Missouri ban on inmate-to-inmate correspondence because the prohibition on correspondence was "logically connected" to legitimate security concerns. In o ' lone v. estate of shabazz (1987), the Court applied the same reasonableness test to sustain New Jersey prison policies that resulted in Muslim inmates' inability to attend weekly congregational services.

Security concerns generally trump the claims of prisoners' rights; the Court is hesitant to recognize inmate claims that have the potential of putting at risk the prison itself, the guards, other inmates, or the petitioner. Justice william h. rehnquist, in Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners' Union (1977), summarized well the Court's deferential approach to these issues: "It is enough to say that they [prison officials] have not been conclusively shown to be wrong in this view. The interest in preserving order and authority in prisons is self-evident."

Applying this reasoning, the Court has denied inmates' claims to a First Amendment right to organize as a prisoners' labor union, rejected the contention that an inmate's right of privacy protects against routine strip and body-cavity searches, and refused to recognize any inmate legal rights in the ordinary classification process or interprison transfer. As the Court said in Moody v. Daggett (1976), no due process issues are implicated by "the discretionary transfer of state prisoners to a substantially less agreeable prison, even where the transfer visit[s] a 'grievous loss' upon the inmate. The same is true of prisoner classification and eligibility for rehabilitative programs."

Beyond assuring life's necessities for inmates, the Court has consistently recognized inmates' claims in only two areas: their due process right of access to the courts and procedural due process protection of their liberty interest in retaining "good time" and avoiding solitary confinement. Concerning the former, the Court has repeatedly insisted that inmates have the right to access to legal redress and that this right of access to the courts requires either an adequate law library or assistance from persons trained in law (although not necessarily lawyers). Concerning the latter, the Court held in Wolff v. McDonnell that inmates have a liberty interest in the good-time credit they have acquired and that they may not be stripped of these credits without a hearing before an impartial tribunal. The Court has not considered either of these rights to jeopardize prison security. Access to the courts poses no problems at all, and, as the Court made explicit in Hewitt v. Helms (1978) and Superintendent v. Hill (1985), prison disciplinary proceedings can follow (and need not precede) solitary confinement and can impose sanctions based on the lax evidentiary standard of "some evidence."

Ralph A. Rossum

(see also: Body Search.)


Cohen, Fred 1988 The Law of Prisoner's Rights: An Overview. Criminal Law Bulletin 24:321–349.

Rossum, Ralph A. 1984 The Problem of Prison Crowding: On the Limits of Prison Capacity and Judicial Capacity. Benchmark 1, no. 6:22–30.

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Prisoners' Rights (Update 1)

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