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Prisoners Rights

What Legal Rights Do Inmates Have While Incarcerated?

The rights of prisoners are rights that an individual has while incarcerated. There are some rights that prisoners are deprived of while they are incarcerated. However, incarcerated individuals still have basic rights that cannot be violated. These rights include civil liberties and fundamental rights that all Americans are afforded.

What is Transparency and Accountability of Prison Guards?

A prison guard is a uniformed individual who works in a prison. They are responsible for:

  • Enforcing prison rules;
  • Preventing assaults;
  • Preventing escapes; and
  • Maintaining general order in the facility in which they work.

Prison guards also respond to emergency situations, including:

  • Riots;
  • Fires; and
  • Confrontations between inmates.

In recent years, it has been recognized that there is a need for greater transparency and accountability for prison guards. This is an especially important issue in private prisons.

Government prisons have been facing overcrowding issues for many decades. Since the Supreme Court ruled that prison overcrowding violates the inmates' Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishments, the government was forced to begin using private prisons to house inmates as well.

Government prisons are subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Pursuant to the FOIA, an individual can request records about a prison owned and operated by the government, so long as the request is properly submitted and does not fall into any listed exemptions.

Private prisons often are not required to and do not respond to FOIA requests. The argument is that private prisons are private corporations and, therefore, not subject to the FOIA. However, this causes issues with prison transparency, such as budget issues, prisoner demographics, and care and treatment of those incarcerated in a private prison.

Many times, overcrowded prisons are also understaffed. This leads to a number of issues regarding inmate treatment and care. Understaffing also leads to issues regarding prison guard accountability and lack of leadership.

What are Disabled Prisoners' Rights?

What an individual is behind bars, they still have the right to civil liberties and basic fundamental human rights. These include:

  • Being protected from cruel and unusual punishment. Pursuant to the Eighth Amendment, an individual is entitled to freedom from treatment including torture, abuse or being forced to live in unsanitary conditions;
  • Protection from subjection to sexual harassment or other sex crimes. This includes protection from actions of other inmates or prison staff;
  • Protections afforded to disabled individuals under the Americans with Disability Act. even if an individual is incarcerated, if they have a disability, they have rights under the ADA.
  • Being free from discrimination, including discrimination based on:
    • age;
    • gender;
    • Race;
    • religion;
    • sexual orientation; and
    • other characteristics;
  • Rights under the First Amendment, which includes freedom of speech, so long as exercising these rights does not interfere with their status as a prisoner;
  • The right to complain about treatment and have access to the courts; and
  • The right to adequate medical or mental health care.

What Rights are You Deprived of as a Prisoner?

There are some rights individuals are deprived of when they are incarcerated. These include:

  • Prisoners property may be seized if it is considered contraband. While a prisoner cannot be intentionally deprived of their property, they are not permitted to have some items, known as contraband;
  • They do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their cells. A prisoner's cell may be searched without a warrant;
  • A prisoner does not have the rights afforded to individuals under employment laws. For example, they are not entitled to minimum wage; and
  • They cannot go directly to a court to seek a remedy. Prior to requesting help from a court, a prisoner must exhaust all other internal remedies.

When do the Rights Reach a Gray Area?

Prisons are ultimately responsible for running the facilities in a way that keeps all individuals safe. This includes the safety of prisoners, guards, and the surrounding population. Because of these requirements, prisons may forbid prisoners from having certain personal items, such as picture frames or crucifixes, which may be used as weapons. Any item that is considered potentially harmful to the population may be confiscated.

A prisoner may also lose rights based on their behavior. While a prison may have the right to personal property, if they violate a prison policy or a rule so that they are considered a danger to the other inmates and staff, they may lose the ability to access most, if not off, of their personal property. They may also lose other rights, including access to the canteen, or the place where they can purchase goods, or lose the rights to have visitors.

Although certain prison rights can be taken away, there are times when a prisoner's rights can be clearly violated. For example, if they have a disability which hinders their mobility, such as walking and or going up and down stairs, and the staff confiscated their wheelchair or cane. Although a cane or a wheelchair may be a potential weapon, it must be made available to the disabled prisoner each time they need to travel from one area to another.

Can a Prisoner Object to Poor Conditions in a Prison?

Yes, a prisoner can object to conditions in their prison or treatment they receive as long as their challenge is not frivolous or malicious. The challenge must be made in good faith. The challenge must also have a legal and factual basis. Should the prisoner's challenge be frivolous or malicious, the court will dismiss the suit and the prisoner's credibility may be damaged.

If a prisoner wishes to object to a poor condition in the prison, they will be required to exhaust any internal grievance procedures the prison has in place. This means, the prisoner must attempt to solve the problem within the prison and without involving the courts and the legal system.

If the prison's internal claims procedure is inadequate to resolve the issue, a prisoner may file a claim in court. In order for a claim to be successful, the prisoner must show that the prison employees, prison guards, or prison officers knowingly violate the prisoner's civil rights. The elements of proving this type of claim include:

  • Evidence that the prisoner's rights were violated;
  • A showing that the prison employees, prison guard, or prison officers were aware of the civil rights violation;
  • Proof that the prison employees, prison guard, or prison officers took no action to protect the prisoner's civil rights or encouraged the violation of the prisoner's rights.

Can the Government be Held Liable for Personal Injuries to a Prison Inmate as a Result of Other Inmates?

In short, yes, the government can be held liable for personal injuries to a prison inmate as a result of other inmates. The Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”) allows federal prisoners to sue the government for personal injuries resulting from other inmates. At the state level, several state governments have adopted some sort of variation of the FTCA in order to allow state prisoners to sue for any personal injuries as well.

The FTCA serves to bypass government immunity. Governmental immunity is what stops individuals from suing the government, and government employees and officials in many cases. An example of this would be that you may not sue the state legislature for money if they pass a law that happens to harm you. Government immunity will stop any lawsuit in which a judgment in favor of the plaintiff could control the actions of the state, or subject it to liability. Bypassing governmental immunity allows courts to apply the reasonable care standard which is common in many personal injury claims.

All prisoners in the United States have a right to safe and humane conditions, as well as treatment. Injury incidents in prison settings could include slip and fall incidents from improper facility care, as well as violent physical attacks, at the hands of staff and/or other inmates.

What Is the Reasonable Care Standard for Prisons?

Generally speaking, most courts require that prisons use the judgment of an “ordinary and prudent person” when enforcing and maintaining the safety of inmates.  It is important to note that many state statutes explain this reasonable care standard in more detail. As such, you should research your own state's statutes regarding the matter. Additionally, any violation of a prisoner's civil rights under 42 USCA § 1983 is understood as a violation of reasonable care.

Some recurring actors that appear in various states' reasonable care statutes include:

  • The prison official(s) had knowledge of an anticipated danger to inmate, which is required in almost all states;
  • Previous similar incidents of inmate attacks which could serve to warn prison officials;
  • The prison official's relative control over attacking inmate's actions, meaning, the prison official has a duty to intervene and control an inmates actions when they are attacking another inmate;
  • The location of attack (for example, the incident occurred in the inmate's cell versus common gathering areas); and/or
  • The duration of attack before prison official intervention.

What Are the Steps to Take if You've Been Attacked by Another Inmate?

As previously mentioned, inmates have rights, including the right to be treated humanely. Such rights are protected by the Eighth Amendment. If you believe that your rights as an inmate have been violated in any way, whether by an officer or a fellow inmate, you file a grievance with the ACLU. Additionally, you should appeal the grievance through all available levels of appeal. It is imperative to note that there are generally strict time limits which govern when you may file a grievance. Because of this, you should file the grievance as soon as possible.

If you believe you are immediately in danger of being attacked by another inmate, you should report to a staff member that you trust. This could be a mental health worker or a teacher. You may even consult with a skilled and knowledgeable jail injury lawyer. The lawyer can help you understand your rights as an inmate, and provide you with legal advice moving forward to ensure the best outcome possible.

In order to successfully prove personal injury, you will need to prove the following elements:

  • The correctional facility breached its duty of care to you in some way;
  • The facility knew or should have known that the inmate could be injured; and/or
  • The facility was negligent, which resulted in the inmates' injury.

Some examples of evidence which would support your claim could include:

  • Photographic or video evidence;
  • Witness statements;
  • Previous written requests for assistance from other authorities; and
  • Medical records.

For What Illnesses Can I Be Treated in Prison?

State prisoners are entitled to numerous healthcare benefits. A large portion of prison healthcare resources are devoted to the testing and treatment of sicknesses including, but not limited to:

  • Tuberculosis;
  • Hepatitis C;
  • Chronic diseases, such as asthma, diabetes, and hypertension;
  • Mental illness; and
  • Substance abuse.
How Do Prisons Ensure Quality Healthcare?

Certain states, such as Florida, provide healthcare services which are accredited by the Nation Commission on Correctional Health Care. This non-profit agency accredits healthcare programs in prisons, jails, and youth correctional facilities while providing technical assistance and training designed to help develop quality healthcare.

What If I Request Healthcare And It Is Denied?

While prisoners' healthcare rights vary from state to state, some basic guidelines must always be respected. Inmates are protected against deprivation of medical attention under certain U.S. laws, such as:

  • The Eighth Amendment, which forbids deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners;
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act, which regulates the treatment of individuals with physical and psychological disabilities; and
  • The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980 and the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, which provide guidelines for prison litigation if medical care has been withheld.

Yes, in many cases the prison cannot interfere with an inmate's practice of their chosen religion. However, there are some reasons a prison can legally restrict an inmate's religious practice depending on the activity and its effect on other duties and responsibilities of running the prison.

There are two main laws pertaining to religion in prisons: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) for federal and the District of Columbia inmates and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) that relates to inmates in state and local facilities.

What are My Religious Rights?

All persons in the United States have the right to freely practice their chosen religion. This right is guaranteed by the constitution and enforced through legislation and the Courts. In prisons, the RFRA and RLUIPA govern how that right is accessed by inmates.

Both laws provide a “balancing test.” meaning the prison may not place a substantial burden on an inmate's exercise of religious beliefs unless that burden is for a very important governmental interest and the burden is the least restrictive way of supporting that interest.

Typically, an inmate can expect access to the following religious rights:

  • Free practice of their religion;
  • Access to appropriate religious books or texts;
  • Ability to attend a religious service within the prison if one is available;
  • Engage in prayer; and/or
  • Recognizing one's designated Sabbath day.

The following is a list of religious activities that are not frequently available for inmates depending on the facility:

  • An individualized religious diet;
  • Certain grooming habits;
  • Wearing religious jewelry; and/or
  • Having or carrying certain religious objects.

What if I Practice a Non-Mainstream Religion?

Mainstream religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism have received widespread recognition as a religion and prisons routinely make accommodations for many of their well-known practices. Inmates practicing a less commonly recognized religion may face some barriers in access depending on what practices they wish to follow.

However, there is at least one case from 2005 that says that a religion need not be a mainstream faith as long as the person holds that belief sincerely. Followers of mainstream religions may have more access in prison such as having a religious leader conduct services and having recognizable sabbath days within the prison due to a large number of prisoners following that religion.

Those following less known faiths should still have access to prayer, religious texts should they exist, and the ability to practice freely.

Why Do Prisons Sometimes Deny a Religious Practice?

The most common reason a practice is denied is safety in prison. Safety includes a broad range of things and courts provide a good bit of discretion to prison officials when it comes to running the prison. Safety includes protection for other prisoners welfare as well as the guards. Safety can also refer to everyone's health.

The following are examples that have been used to hinder religious practice on the basis of safety:

  • Banning religious objects that can be used as a weapon (ceremonial swords, crucifix made from sharp metal);
  • Banning the use of animals (like animal sacrifice);
  • Literature that incites violence;
  • Certain clothing that has the ability to hide something from the guards; and/or
  • Wearing an item that resembles gang colors .

Women in Prison

Over the past several years the rate of women in prisons has dramatically increased. Statistics show that most female prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent crimes, such as drug abuse and prostitution. Often, female prisoners have a greater need for physical and mental support than male prisoners. Many female prisoners are mothers, victims of domestic abuse, or drug addicts, all of which make female prisoners very susceptible to depression and other mental illnesses. Unfortunately, the facilities housing female prisoners are often less equipped than the prisons housing males.

What Types of Civil Rights Abuses Occur in Female Prisons?

It is important to remember that all people have civil rights, and just because an individual is incarcerated does not mean they lose their basic civil rights. Civil rights abuses that occur in prisons include:

  • Sexual harassment or assault of female prisoners by prison guards, employees, or officers
  • Inadequate medical or mental health treatment of prisoners
  • Keeping prisoners in unsafe or unsanitary conditions
  • Denying prisoners their right to contest the treatment they receive and the conditions in which they are kept

What Rights Do Prisoners with HIV Have in Prison Concerning Medical Treatment?

There are not a lot of solid rights for prisoners with HIV.  There are two laws that could be interpreted as protecting prisoners with HIV:

The 8th Amendment states that no citizen may be subject to cruel and unusual punishment.  For prisoners, this means that officials cannot neglect a prisoner who is in need of medical treatment.  However, this standard does not provide much protection for specific medical treatment for prisoners with HIV.  While prison officials are not allowed to let an inmate diagnosed with HIV go untreated, no court has interpreted the clause as mandating that inmates must be allowed access to HIV specialists.

The ADA gives a little more protection for HIV-infected prisoners, stating that those prisoners must be allowed equal access to prison programs for which they are otherwise qualified.

What Do Prisons Tend to Do Concerning Treatment of Prisoners with HIV?

Some prisons have now what is called a “cluster” program.  Essentially what happens is that prisoners with HIV are segregated into one part of the prison.  The purpose of this is so that a certain portion of the prison staff can be used to exclusively treat HIV-infected prisoners, so those staff members involved in that program can ensure up-to-date treatment.  Also, by segregating the prisoners, prison officials hope to help stop the spread of HIV among prisoners.

However, some opponents of the program feel that due to a lack of funding to prisons, prisoners with HIV will not get the attention and care promised by the program.  Furthermore, the program could conflict with the ADA since prisoners who are being clustered do not necessarily have equal access to prison programs such as work and educational programs. 

How Can a Lawyer Help with Prisoner Rights Violations?

You should hire a criminal lawyer for any prisoner rights violations issue. If you are incarcerated and you believe your rights have been violated, an attorney can help you. It may be difficult for the inmate themselves to obtain certain evidence that may help their case, but an attorney will be able to take necessary actions to gather evidence for your case. Your attorney will review your case, assist you with filing a complaint, or represent you in court, if necessary.

Whether or not your rights were violated is generally left up to the court for interpretation. Because of this, it is extremely important to have an attorney argue your case before the court. The attorney will know what evidence to present and how to best present a persuasive argument to the judge.

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