Traditionally, the primary purposes of any penal institutions are to prevent the criminal from engaging in additional illegal acts, to punish the criminal for the crimes already committed, to deter other individuals from committing crimes by example, and to rehabilitate the criminal during incarceration so they may become productive members of society in the future. While the necessity for such penal institutions will always remain high, the overall approval rating of the actual prison systems has reached an all-time low.
In recent years, thanks to a growing public awareness of problems within each prison, a great number of reports, commissions, and legislators have generally condemned the prison system as failing to achieve its primary purposes, thus creating a new legal battlefield for attorneys to champion. Prisoners’ rights litigation is a relatively new field of practice and an area highly sensitive to reform and trail-blazing opinions. This field, once populated by only a few brave, yet overworked attorneys, has seen a significant increase in the number of attorneys and judges willing to hear the complaints of prisoners. Furthermore, the courts’ recent recognition of the need to provide prisoners with meaningful legal services has spurred remarkable growth.
The United States Supreme Court has made it clear, through multiple judicial opinions, that the Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights are pertinent, with some limitations, to all prisoners. So, exactly what rights are provided for prisoners? Varied opinions establish that each prisoner has the right to be free from inhumane conditions, free from mistreatment by guards or other prison staff, and free from denial of proper food, health care, and hygiene. Prisoners also have the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.
Herein lies the bizarre and complicated fun: no specific case clearly defines what actions violate the rights of prisoners. Some actions, such as the guard who maliciously tortures a prisoner, will clearly violate the prisoner’s right to be free from mistreatment. Other actions, however, are more difficult to define and necessitate judicial intervention – it was only recently the United States Supreme Court declared prisons could not force men to completely shave their beards, if it violated the prisoner’s religious beliefs, based on a prisoner’s right to proper hygiene. This opinion was monumental as it was the first time the Court was willing to deeply discuss what religious rights, if any, are due to each prisoner.
A prisoner is entitled to specific rights, and the list of prisoners’ rights grows with each passing complaint heard by the courts. As more published reports detail the gruesome and failing conditions of the prison systems, the more likely the courts are willing to rule in the prisoner’s favor, thus expanding the privileges owed. Therefore, it is critical for prisoners to voice their complaints and find attorneys willing to take action. This is a vital way of effecting an overall reform of a necessary system.
If you are a prisoner, and you feel that your rights have been violated, please contact me for a free case evaluation.