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.