Going to jail or prison is generally seen as the bottom of the societal ladder. A prisoner has essentially fallen as far as he or she can while still surviving. Deprived of liberty, it’s easy (and common) for inmates to believe that they’ve been forced to give up everything. However, that is not strictly true when it comes to their constitutional rights.
Inmate Rights That Get Waived
The one right that people in prison do almost entirely lose is the right against search and seizure. While incarcerated, there is almost nothing that can stop an administrator from searching your person or your cell whenever they wish, although personal property is protected provided it is not a banned item. A cell is not a private residence, no matter how long someone in it may call it home.
Exceptions may be made if a prisoner feels that there may be discrimination along race, religion, nationality or other lines. The 14th Amendment applies to prisoners, and practices like segregation are only legal if it can be proven that there is a compelling reason to take such measures. A prison may, for instance, separate members of feuding religious denominations during times of high tension.
In 1996, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act. Among other things, it states that for a prisoner to address the court system regarding an issue with their confinement, they must have already exhausted internal prison procedures for resolving grievances. They are also required to pay their own court fees.
Luckily, prison inmates do have some weight on their side for working within the internal parameters. Jails generally work on a privilege-based system when rewarding behavior. Time off a sentence and the ability to mingle with the general population are examples of privileges that can be used as enticements to behave, and the revocation of them as punishments for unruly conduct.
Justice for Prison Inmates
The 8th Amendment protecting against cruel and unusual punishment is generally held up as the measure of what prisons can and can’t do to the incarcerated. People in prison are fully protected from abuse, sexual harassment and unsafe living conditions. They also hold the right to use the court system to fight against any aspect of their confinement that might be cruel or unusual. This can be anything from rape by the guards to being housed in a poorly-maintained facility.
A prisoner is entitled to written notice of his or her infractions, and if doing so will not disrupt security or prison protocol, they may call witnesses to testify for them or present documentary evidence. They have the right to an impartial judge, but they do not have the right to an attorney in the matters. Still, the right to a written record leads to a more transparent process.
While the right to free speech is curtailed some, it’s not entirely eliminated. A prison may open mail to ensure no contraband enters the facility, but they are not allowed to censor passages just because they feel they are offensive. The courts have also held that prisons must respect the religions of their inmates and provide them with the ability to practice within the reasonable boundaries of prison protocols.
Disabled prisoners maintain the same protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act that they would have as free people, and prisons must take their limitations into account when assigning work details, housing and other aspects of inmate life. While incarcerated a person is also entitled to adequate medical care for both physical and mental ailments. A prison cannot withhold treatment of a legitimate medical concern without violating the 8th Amendment.
Finally, unless you live in Maine or Vermont, you lose the right to vote while in prison convicted of a felony. The United States has some of the strictest felony disenfranchisement rules in the world, and the right for states to practice restricting prisoner-voting rights is implicitly written into the 14th Amendment.
A prisoner loses much of his or her rights inside prison walls. Much, but not all, and many prisoners have fought to define and protect those rights while behind bars. If someone finds themselves in lock-up, they should not automatically assume that they do not maintain some freedoms still.
Support for People in Prison
Thiessen Law Firm passionately supports prisoners’ rights. We believe that even those who have committed crimes deserve access to the basics of human rights and freedom from injustice. If you have any further questions about inmate rights in Houston, or require an attorney for your Houston criminal defense case, contact us today to schedule a consultation.