Do prisoners have civil rights? Can they successfully sue for violations?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jun 29, 2022

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Prisoners lose many of the civil rights enjoyed by individuals in society. This is especially true in maximum-security prisons, where inmates are locked in their cells between 22 and 24 hours a day. In spite of this, prisoners do retain a limited number of civil rights, and can sue the state for certain violations, though in many cases a prisoner’s claim will be balanced against the state’s need to establish safety and security inside the prison.

All prisoners maintain their constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to avoid cruel and unusual punishment. Additionally, if the prison is holding the inmate unlawfully, the inmate can bring a petition for habeas corpus to challenge the imprisonment. Common violations made by prisons include inadequate medical treatment, unsanitary or dangerous conditions, physical or sexual assault, and threats against inmates to discourage them from complaining to outside authorities about prison conditions. However, even when these violations occur, the courts will balance the severity of the violation against the need to maintain security or safety within the prison, meaning the inmate may not recover for the violation. For example, while a prisoner has the constitutional right to free speech, their mail may be searched and they may be denied certain types of reading materials on grounds of security. Likewise, if a guard physically assaults a prisoner, the courts will consider whether the inmate posed a threat to the safety and security of the prison during that time.

If an inmate believes that their rights have been violated, they may take action against the prison in court. However, an inmate may not file a lawsuit against the prison without going through the steps designated by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The PLRA, enacted in 1996, made it harder for an inmate to file a direct suit against the prison. As a result of the act, inmates now must follow strict guidelines to file grievances. Before bringing a lawsuit against the prison, the inmate must first exhaust all administrative remedies, following the prison’s official grievance procedure. This entails filing a written grievance for each of the inmate’s claims. Prison grievance policies vary, so the inmate should be sure to get a copy of the grievance procedure from a warden. Generally, a grievance is filed with an officer of the prison, and if the inmate’s grievance is denied, prison procedure may require an appeal to be filed before the inmate can bring a suit. Note that if the prison does not respond to the grievance, an appeal is not required. Also, if the prison does not have the proper forms available for the inmate to fill out, then a grievance is “unavailable,” and will be considered exhausted, thus allowing a suit to be filed immediately.

If an inmate wants to challenge the legitimacy of his custody in the prison, he may file a habeas corpus petition with the court. A petition for habeas corpus can be filed when the inmate believes that his sentence has expired, his probation was unjustly denied, or that the court did not have the authority or the jurisdiction to sentence him. To file a habeas corpus petition, the inmate must first obtain a petition form from the appropriate court. After the inmate fills out the form with all of the relevant issues and facts included, he must then file it in that same court. If the court grants a writ, the warden generally has ten days to bring the prisoner to court for a determination of whether the prisoner’s claims are true.

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