Prisoners' Rights Under Law - Produce The Body, First Amendment Cases, Fourth Amendment, Eighth Amendment, Due Process Complaints
federal lawsuits courts court
In 1871 a Virginia court, in Ruffin v. Commonwealth (62, Va. 790, 1871), commented that a prisoner "has, as a consequence of his crime, not only forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights except those which the law in its humanity accords to him. He is for the time being the
slave of the state." Eighty years later, in Stroud v. Swope (187 F. 2d. 850, 9th Circuit, 1951), a federal circuit judge asserted: "We think it well settled that it is not the function of the courts to superintend the treatment and discipline of persons in penitentiaries, but only to deliver from imprisonment those who are illegally confined."
Correctional administrators held that prisoners lost all of their constitutional rights after conviction. Prisoners had privileges, not rights, and privileges could be taken away arbitrarily (William C. Collins, Legal Responsibility and Authority of Correctional Officers, American Correctional Association, Laurel, Maryland, 1982).
A significant change in the legal view came in the 1960s. In Cooper v. Pate (378 U.S. 546, 1964) the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (42 USC 1983) granted protection to prisoners. The code states that:
Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any
citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.
With the Cooper decision, the Supreme Court announced that prisoners had rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and could ask the judicial system for help in challenging the conditions of their imprisonment. Cases brought later came to be known as Section 1983 lawsuits because
the Court had based itself on Section 1983 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code. Prisoners' suits in federal courts skyrocketed from 218 in 1966 to 26,824 in 1992. After 1992 new laws made it more difficult for prisoners to sue.
Observers differ about the nature of the lawsuits, how the federal courts process them, and the manner in which they are resolved. Many consider some of the lawsuits to be frivolous and undeserving of the limited resources of the federal courts. Others assert that some lawsuits have merit, but that the federal courts tend to
treat all Section 1983 lawsuits in an assembly line fashion with little or no individual attention.
In Cooper v. Pate the Supreme Court relied upon civil rights. Another source of prisoners' rights arose from the Court's reliance on habeas corpus. The Latin phrase is an imperative meaning "Have the body …" with the rest of the phrase, "brought before me," implied. A writ of habeas corpus is therefore the command issued by
one court to another cour…
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble; and to petition the government for a redress of
grievances. In Procunier v. Martinez (416 U.S. 396, 1973) the Supreme Court r…
The Fourth Amendment guarantees the "right of the people to be secure … against unreasonable searches and seizures … and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause." The courts have not been as active in protecting prisoners under the Fourth Amendment as under the First and Eighth Amendments. In Bell v. Wolfish (441 U.S.
520, 1979) the U.S. Supreme Court asserted …
The Eighth Amendment guarantees that "cruel and unusual punishment [not be] inflicted." The Eighth Amendment has been used to challenge the death penalty, three-strikes laws, crowded prisons, lack of health or safety in prisons, and excessive violence by the guards. The Supreme Court has established several tests to determine
whether conditions or actions violate the Eighth Amendment…
The Fifth Amendment provides that no person should be deprived of life, liberty, or property by the federal government "without due process of the law." The Fourteenth Amendment reaffirmed this right and explicitly applied it to the states. Due process complaints brought by prisoners under the Fourteenth and the Fifth
Amendments are generally centered on questions of procedural fairn…
Two cases decided in the late 1990s pertained to prisons releasing inmates early to relieve overcrowding and then later revoking their release status. Beginning in 1983 the Florida legislature enacted a series of laws authorizing the awarding of early release credits to prison inmates when the state prison population exceeded
predetermined levels. In 1986 Kenneth Lynce received a twenty-two-year p…
In 1995 the Supreme Court made it harder for prisoners to bring constitutional suits to challenge due process rights. In a five to four decision in the case of Sandin v. Conner (515 U.S. 472), the majority asserted that it was frustrated with the number of due process cases, some of which, it felt, clogged the judiciary with
unwarranted complaints such as claiming a "liberty interest"…
DNA testing has emerged as a powerful tool capable of establishing the innocence of a person in cases where organic matter from the perpetrator of a crime (blood, skin, semen, etc.) has been obtained by law-enforcement officials. This organic matter can be tested against DNA samples taken from an accused, or indeed from a
convicted, person. If the two samples do not match then they came from diffe…
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