A Primer On Prisoners’ Constitutional Rights

prisoners constitutional rights

What is a right? This is a person’s moral entitlement to have something, do something or act in a particular way. It’s something which a person is justly entitled to. Looking at the Constitution, the first ten amendments consist of the Bill of Rights.
However, it seems like they are more of privileges than they are rights. This is because, with conviction and incarceration, most of these rights can be taken away.

The Rights Of US Prisoners

The United States has the highest number of incarcerations per 100,000 people globally. With such high numbers, talking about the issues of prisoners’ rights is fundamental.
After conviction, a person's rights are taken away depending on the stage of the legal process they are in and where they are incarcerated. For example, those in jail and waiting to be arraigned in court for trial have the right to be accommodated inhumane facilities and cannot serve punishment.

Below are the rights prisoners are entitled to, although most are only given in the bare minimum.

1) Right To Medical And Mental Health Care

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has poked holes. Being in a place where it’s practically impossible to depopulate and allow people to social distance, prisons have become an ideal breeding ground for the pandemic. Unfortunately, there’s still no special care given to prisoners infected with the virus aside from isolations. Read the full details of the COVID-19 pandemic, and prisoners’ right to healthcare is working, if at all.

Prisoners have a right to receive ‘adequate’ medical and mental care. This means that a prisoner does not have the full extent of the right but just partial. Prisoners, even those suffering from life-threatening conditions, only receive the minimum or essential treatment for their conditions. The treatment is only there to help them cope rather than to cure them completely or extend their lives.

2) Right To No Cruel And Unusual Punishments

This right is provided for in the 8th Amendment and protects prisoners from cruel and unusual punishments. Although it hasn’t been defined clearly what this entails, the Supreme Court has held that they include the following punishments, among others:

- Burning Alive
- Public Dissection
- Disemboweling
- Beheading
- Drawing and Quartering

Any treatment to a prisoner in violation of basic human dignity is deemed unusual and cruel. Any report of such treatment is usually evaluated from case to case by the court.

3) Right To Be Free From Sex Crimes Or Sexual Harassment

Prisoners have a right to be free from sex crimes or to be sexually harassed. This includes harassment or crimes by prison officials and personnel or other inmates. Prison administration, guards, and government officials have previously been held accountable for such crimes that occurred under their watch. A violation of this right results in criminal and civil punishments against those who perform them or their enablers.

4) Right To Complain About Prison Conditions

The constitution under the 8th Amendment reads that prisoners have a right to ‘minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.’ Some of the things considered to be poor prison conditions include lack of proper diet, overcrowding, unsafe building, and lack of sanitary/hygiene items.

Also, included in this right is access to courts. Prisoners have the right to ask for improvement of these conditions without being punished or ignored.

5) First Amendment Rights

Prisoners get to retain their fundamental rights, such as the freedom to practice religion and the freedom of speech. However, these rights are limited and are only to the extent that they don’t interfere with their status as prisoners. Any attempt by a prisoner to involve their first amendment rights that may interfere with the reasonable objective of the facility, such as discipline, order, or security, their efforts will be stopped.

This is among the reasons given by prison authorities for opening and reading correspondences sent to prisoners or outgoing mails. It’s meant to ensure that the messages don’t pose a threat to the facility’s objectives.

6) Rights For Disabled Prisoners

The rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act, prisoners living with disabilities have a right to some practical accommodations. This is to ensure that those disabled prisoners assess common facilities like the other prisoners. This accommodation is also kept to the minimum, nothing special, but just to make their prison life livable.

What Rights Prisoners Don’t Have?

Once a person is incarcerated, the first right they lose is the right to privacy. They aren’t protected from unwarranted searches of their cells or person. However, inmates retain their due process rights which protect them from deliberate denial of their property by prison officials, except for any kind of contraband. This is just one example of the prisoners’ rights that get violated.

Depending on the offense and the state where they live, a prisoner upon conviction loses these other rights:

- Traveling abroad
- The right to vote
- The right to carry or own guns
- Jury service
- The right to working in certain fields
- Denial of parental benefits
- The right to housing and other public benefits


The most notable issue about prisoners’ rights is that they are kept to the minimum. This includes the fact that prisoners who are part of a work program or employment-like initiatives are not subject to protection by laws that define minimum wage.

Also, prisoners without the knowledge of these rights can be violated without their knowledge. This is because it’s difficult to draw the line to what extent the constitution protects a prisoner. Also, having them in the constitution doesn’t protect prisoners from violation.

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Posted - 05/11/2021