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Prisoners give up some of their rights and privileges when they enter the criminal justice system, but not all of them. Prison and jail officials must follow state and federal law to protect the rights of inmates, and when they do not, confined inmates have the right to seek damages for poor prison conditions, inhumane treatment, and instances of intentional deprivation that are contrary to the law. So, what legal rights do inmates have while incarcerated?
Nine Basic Rights of Inmates and Their Limitations
Prisoners have fundamental rights under the law, separate from privileges granted by the facility itself. It takes an experienced prisoner's rights attorney to help determine when prison officials have engaged in the mistreatment of prisoners, violated their rights, and are subject to litigation.
The Right to Humane Conditions
The United States Supreme Court held in Farmer vs. Brennan that prison officials violate the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment if they knew of a substantial risk faced by an inmate and ignored it. This case established the rights of transgender prisoners to be free from sexual abuse and assault.
This protection covers other areas of prison life that significantly threaten the health and safety of inmates, such as living conditions.
The Right to Nutrition and Reasonable Accommodations
Prisoners have the right to healthy food prepared in clean kitchens under Robles v. Coughlin, but there is little guidance on what form that food takes. Prisons may serve loaves instead of separate dishes as long as they are nutritionally adequate.
Officials must make some accommodations for religious diets, though that accommodation is balanced based on the burden placed on the system. Other accommodations throughout the prison system are made for disabled prisoners based on the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The Right to Medical and Mental Healthcare
The Supreme Court established in Estelle v. Gamble that a lack of medical care is considered unconstitutional if it leads to unnecessary and malicious infliction of pain. It included mental healthcare in Bowring v. Godwin. Prison staff cannot act with deliberate indifference to inmates' medical needs, including intentionally denying or delaying access to proper care.
An experienced prisoner rights lawyer with an in-depth knowledge of the rights of inmates law can show how the deliberate indifference of prison staff led to damages that deserve compensation.
The Right To Practice Their Religion
The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act protects First Amendment religious rights for people in prison. Officials cannot impose a substantial obstacle on prisoners who wish to practice their religious beliefs.
There are limits to prisoners' religious rights. If prison authorities can show a compelling interest in limiting religious practice, they can do it in the least restrictive manner in the name of prison security.
The Right To Be Free From Discrimination
The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal protection of the law, and prison staff and policies can't treat some inmates differently than others. You must show that a regulation discriminated against you and that discriminatory intent was at least part of the reason for the rule. For example, a prison cannot separate simply prisoners by race, as that breaks the law of segregation as it applies to prisons.
However, prison authorities may be able to show they separated inmates by gang affiliation for security purposes and that racial segregation was an unintended byproduct.
The Right to Visitation From Family and Friends
In Overton v. Bazzetta, the Supreme Court ruled that inmates' rights to intimate associations don't all stop at the prison walls but that officials can limit visitations to protect inmates and visitors and keep order.
In this case, the court upheld barring visits from former prisoners and kids other than the inmate's child or sibling and suspending visiting privileges for inmates with two in-prison drug violations. Prison officials may also suspend visiting privileges for inmates subject to disciplinary proceedings.
The Right To Be Free From Unreasonable Searches and Seizures
The Fourth Amendment protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures, but prisoners are held to a different standard based on the Supreme Court case Hudson v. Palmer. It ruled that inmates do not have an expectation of privacy, so guards can search a prison cell and inmates as long as they are not targeting certain inmates, such as Muslims.
Courts have sometimes indicated how prisoners' rights are violated in searches of their bodies. For example, a strip and body search after a prison visit is OK, but consistent body cavity searches of prisoners in segregation are not.
The Right To Be Free From Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment are the basis for many prisoners' rights lawsuits. The amendment covers excessive force, brutality, unsafe or overly restrictive conditions, and other violations of the constitutional rights of inmates in prisons and jails. In Hudson v. McMillan, the Supreme Court held that punishment must represent a good faith effort to restore order rather than maliciously or sadistically cause harm.
Virginia updated its solitary confinement law in 2023 to address Eighth Amendment prisoners' rights. The reason for solitary must be in writing, justified every seven days, and prisoners must get at least four hours of out-of-cell programs per day.
The Right to Freedom of Speech and To Express Complaints
Many prisoners' rights cases related to free speech, religion, and assembly are decided based on the Turner Test, established in the U.S. Supreme Court case Turner v. Safley. Prison officials must use the least restrictive option to maintain prison order and control. The court has mostly deferred to prison officials' expert judgment relating to restrictions on these First Amendment rights.
Prisoners do have the right to express complaints in a way that is in line with prison policy. According to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, prisoners must follow all steps in the formal prison complaint process before filing a lawsuit.
Get Legal Assistance if Your Rights Were Violated in Prison
Being in prison doesn't remove you or your loved one's constitutional rights, but it does limit them. You can sue for violations, but it is an uphill battle to overcome prison officials' arguments that they have a compelling interest in maintaining prison rules and regulations.
If you believe you or a loved one faced cruel or unjust behavior in prison, it's highly advisable to hire a prisoners' rights lawyer to protect your fundamental rights. Contact the experienced prisoners' rights lawyers at Commonwealth Law Group. We recognize when prison human rights violations occur and how the rights of prisoners are stepped on in the name of security.
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.