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What are the limits of the rights of prisoners? Have the courts gone too far in...

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lawman425 | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 2) Honors

Posted August 30, 2010 at 3:02 PM via web

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What are the limits of the rights of prisoners? Have the courts gone too far in defending the rights of prisoners, or not far enough?

Are lawsuits the best method of ensuring inmates' rights, or are there other methods that you think would be better?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted August 30, 2010 at 3:09 PM (Answer #2)

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I can't think of any better way to enforce inmate rights than lawsuits.  Typically, your choice other than lawsuits is legislation -- get the laws changed the way you want them.  This is especially unlikely to work for inmates because they are a very politically unpopular group of people.  So I do not see any other viable option for enforcement of inmate rights.

I think you can argue that the courts have not done enough to protect inmate rights.  I think that our prisons are more of a breeding ground for more crime because of the conditions in the prisons.  To some extent, this is the fault of judges -- you can argue that they ought to do more to force states to provide humane prisons.

However, it is really up to the legislatures more than the courts because the only thing the courts can really use is the 8th Amendment.  Many of the problems with our prisons, in my opinion, do not come anywhere close to being cruel and unusual punishment.  So, in my opinion, many of the problems are bad policy, but not uncostitutional.

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brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted August 30, 2010 at 6:08 PM (Answer #3)

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While many lawsuits filed on behalf of prisoners are frivolous or desperate, I can think of no other more effective way to assure prisoners their constitutional rights.  Since we are talking about a population that is very easily disregarded by society and therefore by politicians, the courts are the last line of defense in offering those same prisoners some protection from abuse and excess in their punishments.  Ironic, since the same legal system sentenced them to prison in the first place.

As to whether or not courts have gone too far or not far enough, I do not believe there is a simple, one-size-fits-all answer.  Some judges seem to have gone too far in my opinion at time.  On the other hand, some have not gone far enough.  On the whole, the justice system seems pretty responsive to prisoner rights overall.  A prisoner may well disagree with me on that score.

One area that seems chronically unaddressed is violence in prisons.  It is a well known fact that prisons are very physically dangerous places to be locked up in, and a person who is someday released may well have been subjected to some pretty horrific violence during their time there.  Is a person who is sentenced to five years in prison for drug possession, for example, also sentenced to endure violent attacks?  I would think that would be unconstitutional, and the government, to me, should do more to stop such violence.

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martinjmurphy | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

Posted August 31, 2010 at 6:46 AM (Answer #4)

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Constitutionally, prisoners have several rights.  First, the Eighth Amendment says that there will be no “cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” upon any person in the United States.  If a prisoner feels that his imprisonment is somehow cruel or unusual then he can petition the courts to end whatever he felt was cruel or unusual.  Another right that a prisoner has is the right to file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus.  A writ of habeas corpus forces a prison official to bring a prisoner to court so a judge may determine if that person is being held in prison illegally and whether that person should be released from prison.  This petition should show that the court that ordered the imprisonment had made a legal or factual error.  If so, then he should be released from prison.  Article I Section 9 of the Constitution states “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” I don’t think there are any better ways for a prisoner to guarantee these constitutional rights than through the courts. 

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted August 31, 2010 at 3:28 PM (Answer #5)

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I agree with other editors who have stated above that the present status quo does indeed seem to be the best system for guaranteeing the rights of prisoners and ensuring that they get a fair deal. Of course, that is not to say that there are not areas that could be improved, but on the whole there does appear to be no credible alternative for what is, essentially, an excellent system that works and has worked for a long time. As my old granny used to say, "If it 'aint broke, don't fix it."

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bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted August 31, 2010 at 3:55 PM (Answer #6)

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Prison inmates deserve the same degree of protection against violence as free men and women. Violence in American prisons will continue until prison reforms are enacted and enforced. Until that time, lawsuits may be the only way for inmates to get their fair share of justice.

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted August 31, 2010 at 6:59 PM (Answer #7)

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It seems to me, though I have not spent much time studying this issue, that we've gone a bit too far in ensuring not just the rights but the privileges of prisoners.  I agree with my fellow editors that the legal system is the best method of ensuring prisoners' rights.  What bothers me is the issues which seem to me to go beyond rights to privileges.  I understand we have a problem in America because we haven't quite decided whether we want our prisons to be places of punishment or rehabilitation; the general concensus is punishment, I think, and if that's the case it seems as if the rights have moved a bit too far into the realm of privileges.

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krishna-agrawala | College Teacher | (Level 3) Valedictorian

Posted August 31, 2010 at 10:08 PM (Answer #8)

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A civilized society concedes rights to everyone, including those charged with crimes punishable by death. The purpose of granting such rights has several justifications. These include the following:

  • No one should be punished for a crime without the crime being proved by a proper trial in a court of law. Also the punishment given should be in line with severity of crime.
  • The actual punishment suffered by an individual should not be more severe than the punishment envisaged in the law and decided by the court.
  • Practice of cruelty or maltreatment to anyone on any count also hurts the society in general by making it insensitive to such cruelty.

Thus it is in the interest of the society to recognize and protect the rights of prisoners also. Of course such rights, there needs to be, and there are, limits to rights of prisoners, just as there are limits to the rights of others.

The extent to which these rights of prisoners are adequate, less than adequate, or more than adequate, varies from country to country. But speaking of only India, there appears to be a need for improving the conditions of prisoners.

Talking about recourse to court for ensuring rights of inmates, I believe that is definitely an important and valid means of getting relief from any illegal encroachment on individual rights by a government agency.

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drmonica | (Level 2) Associate Educator

Posted September 1, 2010 at 6:56 AM (Answer #9)

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Lawsuits should be a last resort, but they need to stay in place as an option. In the United States, it is essential to remember that not everyone who is convicted is in fact guilty. For that reason, humane treatment of prisoners is necessary. For that matter, even the guilty must be treated humanely in order to comply with ethics and human rights principles.

There are news reports on a regular basis of death-row inmates who are exonerated by DNA evidence. For me, that is sufficient information for me to conclude that the legal system is not infallible.

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epollock | (Level 3) Valedictorian

Posted September 2, 2010 at 11:35 PM (Answer #10)

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The best way to ensure any rights are through the legislative process. Once they are acted upon by the legislative branch, they can only be checked by the judicial branch and generally uphold rights for individuals. Lawsuits are generally reserved for a disagreement between parties that can not be resolved any other way.

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