Prisoners' Rights (Update 2)

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During the 1990s, the Supreme Court, with a few exceptions, continued to narrowly construe the scope of prisoners' constitutional rights. In 1974, the Court had held that a disciplinary hearing that may result in the revocation of good-time credits must be accompanied by certain procedural safeguards, such as notice of the disciplinary charge before the hearing. But in Sandin v. Conner (1995), the Court concluded that due process of law affords no procedural protection to a prisoner sentenced to a disciplinary-segregation unit for thirty days for a disciplinary infraction.

In Lewis v. Casey (1996), the Court held that prisoners' right of access to the courts does not include the right to litigate a claim effectively. Prison officials may have to make some limited assistance available to inmates to ensure that they have a "reasonably adequate opportunity" to file nonfrivolous claims challenging their convictions, sentences, or conditions of confinement. But once their claims have been filed in court, prisoners are, as a constitutional matter, on their own.

Some of the most significant restrictions on prisoners' rights have emanated not from the Supreme Court but from Congress. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, for example, prisoners who have obtained injunctive relief can be required to reestablish periodically that they are entitled to the court-ordered relief. These and other restrictions to which prisoners, but not nonprisoners, are subject under the statute have provoked controversy, litigation, and debate.

Lynn S. Branham


Boston, John and Manville, Daniel E. 1995 Prisoners' Self-Help Litigation Manual, 3rd ed. New York: Oceana Publications.

Branham, Lynn S. 1998 The Law of Sentencing, Corrections, and Prisoners' Rights in a Nutshell. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group.

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Prisoners' Rights (Update 2)

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