After the federal courts abandoned a "hands-off" policy toward state corrections, what problems did correctional administrators face?

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The main issue faced by corrections administrators when the "hands-off" policy was removed was the challenge of restoring their facilities to functioning and livable states. A major issue throughout the corrections system has always been the treatment of prisoners. The penal system is meant to punish and rehabilitate those it incarcerates, but it has become much more of a system to punish and store criminals. Unfortunately, this is a pervasive issue and has led to extremely terrible environments, with prisoners receiving poor food and medical care, having terrible lodging and inadequate provisions.

When the "hands-off" policy was removed, it was determined, essentially, that prisoners still retained some constitutional and natural rights. After all, they were still human. The unfortunate thing is that many prisoners were incarcerated for nonviolent crimes and yet experienced situations just as grim as those who had committed heinous acts against other individuals. Corrections administrators needed to quickly reverse some of these issues, and this was the biggest problem facing them when the policy was retracted. They were tasked with rapidly improving their facilities and ensuring that prisoners had adequate care and that their needs were covered. Unfortunately, this is not a speedy process, and it is something with which prisons have been struggling ever since.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on November 19, 2019
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The “hands off doctrine” that defined the relationship of the federal judicial system to state and local corrections systems resulted, especially in the American South, in harsh prison systems in which convicted prisoners were deprived of all rights. The doctrine had its origins in the broader debate regarding the line between federal and states authorities as defined (or not) by the 10th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The “hands off doctrine” was judicially-realized in the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Supreme Court of which ruled in 1871, in Ruffin v. Commonwealth, that prison inmates had no rights. The infamous passage from that ruling is quoted as follows:

“a convicted felon has, as a consequence of his crime, not only forfeited his liberty, but all of his personal rights except those which the law in its humanity accords him. He is for the time being a slave of the state”

As a result of this doctrine, which was reaffirmed in subsequent court decisions (e.g., Price v. Johnston, 334 U.S. 266, 1948), prison conditions across the nation were often dismal with prisoner treatment defined as individual prison administrators often saw fit. The social turbulence and civil rights movements of the 1960's and early 1970's, however, resulted in a new approach to the issue of prisoner rights – an approach further influenced by the bloody prison uprising at Attica, New York in 1971. The prison reform movement included a drive for improved prison conditions as well as for the affirmation of constitutional rights on the part of the prison inmates. The 1974 Supreme Court decision in Wolff v. McDonnell reversed those earlier court decisions and, at least party, ruled that prisoners did enjoy certain constitutional protections, but that the exigencies of operating a correctional institution required that full provision of rights was not appropriate (e.g., prison officials continued to have a legitimate need to screen inmate mail).

The “hands off doctrine” was rejected because the majority of Supreme Court justices agreed that conviction of a crime and incarceration in a penal institution did not deprive prisoners of all their constitutional rights. Consequently, correctional administrators were now required by the federal government to treat prison inmates in a manner more consistent with the values imbued in the Constitution of the United States.

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During the "hands-off" policy towards prisons in the United States, prison administrators had pretty much free reign to operate their prison facility as they wished. Prisoners' human rights were not protected as free citizens' rights were, and, as such, were subjected to numerous human rights violations. When the policy finally changed in the 1970s as organizations that advocated for prisoners' well-being pushed federal policy change, prisoners finally were able to submit grievances to the state. The "problems" prison administrators faced was that they finally had to be accountable for their treatment of prisoners and be held to federal standards of treatment. Today, prison abolitionist and prison reformists are able to push to reduce the harm experienced by prisoners in jails and prisons due, in part, to the end of the inhumane hands-off policy.

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When the federal courts abandoned a hands-off policy toward state corrections, problems resulted for correctional administrators. The courts maintained this hands-off policy until the 1960s. During this time, the courts had no power to deal with prison rules and regulations or with how the prisons were run. Judges felt that when prisoners committed crimes and were convicted of them, they no longer had any rights.

This policy began to change in the 1960s as the movement for the rights of prisoners gained momentum. Some judges also took more of an activist role from the bench. The policy officially ended in the 1970s with the Wolf v. McDonnell and Procurer v. Martinez Supreme Court decisions. The Wolf decision ruled that prisoners don’t lose their rights when they enter prison. The Procunier decision ruled that the courts would act if a prisoner’s constitutional rights were violated.

As a result, prisoners began to petition the courts that their rights were being violated while in prison. The prison administrators now had to respond to and deal with these accusations.  

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One problem correctional administrators faced after the hands off policy was abandoned was the flood of prisoner inmate petitions being sent before the Courts at appellate and federal levels. Whereas before the change in policy, prisoners were considered to be outside the protection of a US citizen's rights, afterward, the Supreme Court upheld that prisoners are still recipients of local, state and federal rights.

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