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On a general level, the most important case having to do with prisons is probably Monroe v. Pape. This case, on its face, was about a warrantless search. However, it is very important for prisons because it makes it easier for prisoners to sue if they feel that their constitutional rights are being infringed upon. A second important case is Robinson v. California. This case said that the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment applies to the states and not just to the federal government.
Between them, these two cases set the groundwork for many other, more specific cases. These two cases made it possible for prisoners to use the courts to demand better conditions. This, of course, changed prison management by making administrators pay more attention to prisoner rights.
I respectfully correct the above, Pape did not deal with penal institution case law.
From my notes, 2 Supreme Court cases delaing with such, Helling v. McKinney, dealing with second hand smoke exposure to prisoners, and Hudson v. Palmer, permitting searches of cells, so called "shakedowns".
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