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Prisoners and the Constitution

Updated on August 31, 2011

Prisoners, who are in custody of the state, do not have the same level of constitutional protection as law-abiding citizens. Even though constitutional rights are not completely lost when a person is incarcerated, the courts have emphasized that they may be limited. The three justifications for limiting prisoners’ rights are 1) to maintain institutional order, 2) to maintain the security of the prison, and 3) to aid in prisoner rehabilitation. However, inmates today are legally protected much more than in the past. Prior to the Civil Rights era in the 1960’s, most states acted in the belief that prisoners did not have any rights. But as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement, legal protections for inmates became a much greater concern. By the end of the 1970’s, nearly every state had made prison reforms as mandated by decisions made in federal courts. It is now considered that prison regulations that limit inmate rights are unconstitutional unless 1) they are the least restrictive method for dealing with an institutional problem, 2) there is a serious governmental concern regarding the security of the institution, and 3) there is a clear and present danger to prisoner rehabilitation. The Supreme Court established a standard that defined these conditions in Turner v. Safley (1987), when Justice O’Connor, writing for the majority, proposed the rational basis test. Relying on this test to signal justifications for limiting inmates’ rights, prison administrators must prove 1) there is a rational connection between the regulation and the legitimate concern, 2) inmates must have alternative ways to exercise the right, 3) there would be minimal impact on the prison population, and 4) there is no less restrictive alternative available. Even with these protections in place, prisoners’ protection of rights will continue to fall short of a law-abiding citizen’s due to the paramount necessity of maintaining security, order and rehabilitation efforts of penal institutions.

Prisoners do have a right to sue the state based on violations of their constitutional rights. Since the late 1960’s, lawsuits filed by prisoners steadily rose until the passage of two laws in Congress in 1996. The first, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), sought to restrict the number of section 1983 cases. Section 1983 cases are ones that are filed to improve prison conditions and can also seek monetary damages. The provisions set forth in the PLRA included, 1) the exhaustion of other remedies before a suit could be filed, 2) a filing fee of $150, 3) a limitation on attorney’s fees and 4) the screening for and dismissal of frivolous suits. The second act passed by Congress to limit prisoner lawsuits was Title I of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). The AEDPA sought to regulate the number of habeas corpus, or unlawful imprisonment, cases. The provisions of this act 1) placed one year limits on conviction challenges, 2) required federal authorization before filing a second action, and 3) limited federal review of state court decisions unless there was an unreasonable application of established federal law. Most prisoner lawsuits are section 1983 suits and reflect perceived violations to constitutional rights. The rights that are applicable to prisoners are the First, Fourth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Under the First Amendment, the areas of most concern to inmates are the access to reading materials, non-censorship of mail and freedom of religious practice. The Fourth Amendment rights of unreasonable searches and seizures are limited in a prison environment to ones not viewed as being necessary to maintain security and order. The Eighth Amendment protections are centered on a prisoner’s need for decent treatment and minimal health care provisions and the Fourteenth Amendment concern for prisoners is the protection of legal justice and fairness. These rights can be denied if it is proven that their restriction is necessary for the security and safety of the prison’s operational system and its inhabitants.


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