Prisoners' Rights Litigation

Representing individuals in prisoner abuse/neglect litigation is a challenging area of civil rights practice that has seen growth in recent years, despite some of the inherent obstacles to success in these cases.  There are many different categories of prisoner cases, but, in general, these cases can be categorized into three main subgroups:

  • Deliberate indifference to serious medical needs;
  • Conditions of confinement; and
  • Abuse/assault.

Deliberate indifference to serious medical needs cases often involves medical malpractice issues of such an egregious, repetitive, or systemic nature that an inmate’s constitutional rights are implicated. 

Conditions of confinement cases often involve deficiencies in the physical jail or prison that render the incarceration cruel and unusual or conditions created by the jail administrators that result in inhumane treatment (or mistreatment). 

Abuse and assault cases involve a wide range of topics, commonly including prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, guard-on-prisoner attacks, and sexual assaults.

Each of these areas is briefly discussed below.  If you or someone you know has suffered violations of constitutional rights in these areas while incarcerated, please contact us for a consultation.

Denial of Medical Care Cases

Inmates have a unique constitutional right to medical care that exists by virtue of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In other words, the Constitution prohibits eliminating a prisoner’s access to medical care for serious medical conditions as a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

It is important to distinguish between denial of care and inadequate care.  In some cases, prisoners may be dissatisfied with the quality of care they receive while incarcerated. While there may be instances in which this creates a legal claim, those cases do not usually give rise to a constitutional claim. Instead, “deliberate indifference” claims arise where a serious medical condition is ignored, or when a correctional officer, nurse, or doctor refuses to provide the prisoner with access to necessary medication, off-site treatment, or attention to serious complaints. Unfortunately, these circumstances exist far too often in the prison setting, because prisoner health complaints are often disregarded or looked on with skepticism, leading to significant delays in care and oftentimes resulting in serious medical consequences.

If you or someone you know has a constitutional claim, we are skilled in uncovering the facts and bringing these claims in court. Using training, policies, or education can be critical to proving that the correctional defendant was, in fact, aware of the seriousness of a particular medical need and its commensurate risks (thereby contradicting their testimony claiming ignorance on these points and creating a material issue of fact). We will also work with our team of correctional and medical experts to review the actions of the correctional defendants to expose behavior that would only make sense in the circumstance in which the defendant subjectively perceives an objectively serious medical need to exist.  

Conditions of Confinement 

Prison, unfortunately, is not intended to be a pleasant experience, and the “accommodations” are often intended to be unpleasant. Consequently, conditions that are so deplorable as to implicate the Constitution must be extreme. These cases do not encompass claims from prisoners who are merely uncomfortable or who dislike being housed in a certain area of the facility.

Bona fide conditions of confinement cover a broad range of potential legal claims related to the mistreatment of prisoners.  In a broad sense, all unlawful harms suffered by prisoners by virtue of their incarceration are “conditions of confinement.” In our practice, “conditions of confinement” typically relate to the actual physical setting in which the individual is incarcerated. These claims cover those circumstances in which a prisoner may be subject to inhumane conditions of confinement where they are exposed to extraordinary heat or cold, extreme overcrowding, poor ventilation, poor sanitation, environmental health hazards, structural defects, or other torturous conditions of confinement.  

Litigation of these claims requires investigation into the entity responsible for the construction and maintenance of the structure itself.  This could be a town, city, county, or regional authority in jail cases, or a state or federal policy maker in the case of prisons. Typically, these cases can be brought where there is evidence to establish that a municipality has undertaken an official policy or custom that resulted in the failure to provide humane and constitutionally appropriate conditions of incarceration. The underlying rationale for these claims is that a governmental actor has a responsibility to provide for the “basic human needs” of those over whom it has custody.  

Litigating conditions of confinement that “involve the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” or are “grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime” often also implicates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  Generally, “the conditions of solitary or segregated confinement must be measured against what the Supreme Court has termed the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”  For instance, depriving an inmate in segregation of the opportunity to exercise, shower, or participate in recreation can violate the Eighth Amendment. When segregation is used to deprive inmates of the basic necessities of life, it violates the constitution. These claims may not stem from a defect in the construction of the facility, but rather from how those operating the facility use it and whether it is used in such a way as to make the conditions of incarceration unconstitutional. 

Assault Cases

Prison can often be a violent place. Most of the violence that occurs in prison does not give rise to a constitutional claim. However, there are instances in which prison assault and violence violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment or constitute excessive use of force by a correctional officer.

Prisoners who experience physical assault at the hands of correctional officers may have a claim unless the use of force by the officer was justified in response to a legitimate safety issue or in proportionate response to prisoner aggression. In cases where physical force is unnecessary or is deployed in an excessive, punitive, or retaliatory manner by correctional officers, prisoners who are injured by these actions may have a claim against the officers and/or the facility.

Claims for prisoners who are assaulted by other inmates are more complicated as correctional officers are not expected to prevent every act of violence in prison. However, when correctional officers lose institutional control, refuse to perform proper security checks, turn a blind eye to warnings of violence, permit rampant possession of weapons or actively assist in facilitating prisoner attacks, there may be a constitutional remedy available. 

If you or someone you know has been injured as a result of correctional officer misconduct, we can investigate the circumstances and, if meritorious, take these claims to court. All of your human and legal rights do not stop at the prison door. Prison personnel and jail staff must follow state and federal laws regarding the housing and treatment of inmates.

If you or a loved one is serving time, it is important to understand these rights so you know when it is time to hire a prisoners' rights attorney to speak on your behalf.

What Is a Prisoners' Rights Attorney?

Prisoners' rights attorneys provide legal representation to inmates in prisons and jails who believe that prison personnel, practices, or conditions violated their civil or human rights. These attorneys may practice as part of a non-profit organization, or they might specialize in prisoner's rights on their own or as part of a larger practice.

A prisoners' rights lawyer is also a type of civil rights attorney who works to educate the public about the problems facing inmates and how violations of their rights are also civil rights violations. They work to build community coalitions that can impact prisoners' rights through changes in laws or funding.

The Guaranteed Constitutional and Human Rights of Prisoners

Courts have interpreted the constitution and several federal statutes as protecting you while you are serving time in prison, including:

  • The Eighth Amendment protects you against cruel and unusual punishment. Courts have extended the interpretation of this amendment to include the right to a minimum standard of living as part of the conditions of confinement. This protection also includes requiring states to curb extreme overpopulation.
  • The Fifth and 14th Amendments guarantee due process such as the right to appeal. The 14th Amendment also provides equal protection under the law to inmates. This protects you against unequal treatment based on sex, race, and creed.
  • The Model Sentencing and Corrections act extends equal protection under the law based on race, national origin, sex, and religion.
  • The Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that disabled prisoners are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
  • Prisoners maintain their First Amendment rights to speech and religion, with some exceptions due to their status as inmates.

Example Violations of Prisoners' Rights

1. Unusual or Arbitrary Punishments From Correctional Officers

Correctional officers can impose punishments on inmates who break the rules, but that punishment cannot greatly outweigh the violation. They also cannot impose punishment when there is no violation or use punishment that falls outside of accepted correctional norms.

For example, a corrections officer in NJ has been accused of violating prisoners' civil rights by engaging in several punishments that violate federal law. Federal government attorneys allege that he beat inmates who had not broken any rules.

He has also been accused of handcuffing an inmate's hand to a fence and the other hand to a swinging door so that his body was stretched out when the door was opened and closed. The charges state that he and another guard punched the inmate during this process.

2. Sexual Abuse or Physical Abuse of Inmates

When you enter prison or jail you retain the right to freedom from sexual or physical abuse under the constitutional provision against cruel and unusual punishment.

Three corrections officers in CA face 15 years to life in prison for beating an inmate to death. The mentally ill inmate died from internal bleeding and significant spleen and liver damage. Prosecutors proved at trial that these injuries were the results of a severe beating at the hands of those corrections officers several hours earlier. The family of the victim was also awarded $3.6 million in damages.

3. Infringement Upon Constitutional Freedoms

The First Amendment guarantees the freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Some of those basic rights, such as assembly, are severely limited once you enter prison or jail. So how are prisoners' rights violated when it comes to these freedoms?

Freedom of religion is a continuing flashpoint in arguments over the legal rights of prisoners versus prison policy. Prison officials cite safety concerns and the costs of accommodation as reasons to deny some religious freedoms. Prisoners' rights lawyers argue that in many cases the legal rights of prisoners are violated by the arbitrary nature of the rules around religion in some prisons and jails.

In 2021, the Department of Justice reached an agreement with the Michigan Department of Corrections after determining that the agency was violating the religious freedoms of some prisoners. The state agreed to get rid of a five-person minimum for religious services. They also agreed to remove the prohibition against several religious groups, thus allowing Hindus and other prisoners to practice their faith.

4. Poor Prison Conditions or Medical Care

Reports by prison inmates of unsanitary conditions and extreme hot or cold temperatures are not uncommon. Inmates in Mississippi sued over unsanitary conditions such as broken toilets, no lights for weeks, and failed plumbing that caused sewage backups. 

In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that a Texas inmate could go ahead with his lawsuit over unsanitary conditions including having to sleep in his own sewage because of a backed-up system and lack of bed. The court said that the conditions were so egregious that a reasonable corrections officer should have realized the conditions were unconstitutional.

Access to proper medical treatment and mental health care is also an issue in jails and state and federal prisons. The Supreme Court established in 1976 that if prison staff are deliberately indifferent to the serious medical needs of a prisoner, it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment's cruel and unusual punishment clause.

Courts have interpreted differently what "serious medical needs" and "deliberately indifferent" mean. If you or a loved one has been denied adequate medical care in a prison or jail, contact a prisoners' rights attorney right away so that they can get started quickly on addressing the treatment of your medical conditions.

File a Legal Claim With the Help of an Experienced Attorney

If you or a loved one have experienced inhumane or unconstitutional treatment in a prison or jail, contact us at the Commonwealth Law Group in Richmond, VA immediately. We are experienced in civil rights cases in the state of Virginia, and we understand that entering the prison gates doesn't strip you of your basic human rights, your constitutional rights, or your dignity.

If you have been injured at work or through the negligence of another individual or entity, contact us at (804) 999-9999 or or use the form below to connect with our legal team. We will fight to get you the justice you deserve.