Rights of Prisoners

Rights of Prisoners

            Before 1948, the prevailing belief had been that persons who were imprisoned after having been convicted of crimes against society lost their liberty together with all their rights and privileges and were in fact considered “the slave of the state” during their stay in prison. In 1948, however, it was declared by the Supreme Court in Price v. Johnston (334 U.S. 266, 285) that although imprisonment “brings about the necessary withdrawal or limitation of many privileges and rights,” not all rights are actually withdrawn. Prisoners not only retained their right to due process but could also seek protection under the “equal protection clauses” of the constitution. (Findlaw, n.d.)

In 1972, the Supreme Court affirmed that in enforcing the rights of all persons under the constitution, federal courts should see to it that prisoners are protected as well, stating that while penal laws inevitably subject prisoners to certain penal restrictions and limitations, they have not been stripped of their right to petition “for redress of grievances.” In fact, in Wolff v. McDonnell (418 U.S. 539, 555-56 1974), the court proclaimed that “There is no iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country. (Findlaw, n.d.)

            An objective interpretation of the Supreme Court rulings cited above would lead to the conclusion that prisoners, in spite of their being incarcerated as punishment for their crimes, have retained most of their basic rights under the Constitution. One of these is their right granted by the Eight Amendment which provided, among others, that no “cruel and unusual punishment [should be] inflicted.” (Cornell University Law School, n.d.) In other words, while prison officials are mandated by law to subject prisoners to the rules and regulations being implemented in their particular prison facility, they should not subject prisoners to excessive punishment like torture and other inhuman practices.

For this reason, the principles adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in its resolution # 45/111 dated December 14, 1990, called for prison officials to discharge their duties in keeping with the government’s objectives of “promoting the well-being and development of all members of society” and, in this connection, put an end to torture and stop or restrict to the minimum the practice of “solitary confinement.” What the U.N. resolution wants to accomplish is that prisoners should be properly rehabilitated while in prison to prepare them for their rejoining society after their prison sentences have been completed instead of being subjected to inhuman punishments which would result to their being dehumanized. For this reason, the U.N. resolution also demanded that prisoners should be allowed “to take part in cultural activities and education” to complete their rehabilitation and development as members of society. “Unusual punishment” is also interpreted to mean that prisoners should be afforded the basic living conditions worthy of human beings – referring to decent quarters, food, and clothing. (Human Rights Education Associates, n.d.)

Both the Fifth and the Fourteenth Amendments, on the other hand, stated that nobody should be denied their “life, liberty or property without due process of law.” This means that prisoners should be afforded their day in court. Due process does not end with conviction and sentencing. By due process is meant that prisoners should be allowed to engage the services of lawyers for the purpose of appealing their cases or seeking for retrials and/or mistrials for whatever reason. (HREA, n.d.) In this connection, the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right of prisoners to acquire the services of counsel or an attorney to defend him or her in court. This means that when prisoners want to appeal their cases to higher courts or when they believe that there are reasons for them to file for a mistrial, the court should grant them the services of public defenders for such purposes. (Head, 2007)

Furthermore, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause likewise protects prisoners from being discriminated against for reason of “race, religion, national origin, or sex.” (Cornell University Law School, n.d.) U.N. resolution 45/111 added “property, political opinion, language, and birth status” to the categories specified under the Fourteenth Amendment. (HREA, n.d.) For instance, prison officials should not disallow prisoners from practicing their own religious beliefs, prescribe disparate detention schemes, or unnecessarily segregate them according to their race, language, or national origin, as long as their own safety or the safety of other prisoners and that of prison officials are not endangered.


Cornell University Law School. (n.d.). prison and prisoner’s rights: an overview. Retrieved

            October 20, 2007 from


Findlaw. (n.d.). U.S. Constitution: Fourteenth Amendment. Retrieved October 20, 2007 from


Human Rights Education Associates. (n.d.). Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners.

            Retrieved October 20, 2007 from


Head, T. (2007). The Sixth Amendment. About.com: Civil Liberties. Retrieved October 20,

            2007 from