Prisoners Rights

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A Brief History of Supreme Court Rulings Dealing with Prisoner Rights

As we evolved into a more civilized society many things changed. Medicine became better; schools and education improved, and treatment of our prisoners became more humane. The constitution of our country clearly prohibits the use of cruel and unusual punishment. No longer would captors be allowed torture that captive with iron maidens or contraptions of the like. These basic rules seem obvious to us today, but they represent the foundation of prisoner rights, the idea that even if we break the rules of our society we are still afforded basic rights that can not be taken from us. What are these rights? When did they come about? Why did they happen? In this paper I will examine these questions in hope of becoming better informed of how our society progressed to where it is today in our legal treatment of those we incarcerate.

The concept that prisoners have rights beyond the minimum required for living is relatively new one. Woody Ruffin was a convict charged with murder while working on a chain gang in 1871. The Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Virginia was called upon to decide the rights that he had. They decided:

"The Bill of Rights is a declaration of general principles to govern a society of freemen, and not of convicted felons and men civilly dead. Such men have rights it is true, such as the law in its benignity accords them, but not the rights of freemen. They are slaves of the State undergoing punishment for heinous crimes committed against the law of the land." (Cruel and Unusual, 2004)

This ruling essentially said that prisoners are afforded no rights what so ever. This would lay the groundwork for what was known as the ‘hands off doctrine'. The ‘hands off doctrine' was the policy that the federal courts would not interfere with state prison operations or call into question prison officials' judgment regarding its inmates (Seiter, p.24). This policy remained for more then one-hundred years and did not change until the prisoner rights movement during the second half of the 20th century.

In 1964 the Supreme Court made a landmark decision in the case of Cooper v. Pate. Thomas Cooper was a Muslim incarcerated in the Illinois State Penitentiary. While in jail, he claimed that he was not allowed to purchase or read books dealing with Islam, treated with hostility by prison staff and was not allowed to attend religious services of his faith. Cooper believed that this was a violation of his first amendment right, to practice any religion he saw fit. Under the ‘hands off doctrine' the court would not intervene with the workings of the prison, but in this case it did. It ruled that the lower courts were wrong to dismiss the case and agreed with Mr. Cooper. This case is important not because The Court established the right to practice whatever faith one chooses while in prison, but because it ruled at all in the case. It was the first time that the court acknowledged rights of prisoners, paving the way for other inmates to petition the government for other rights.(Justice & Oyez & US Court Forms, 2004).

After this ruling there were many more cases that came before the Supreme Court. In 1969 the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Johnson v. Avery, in which petitioner Johnson was reprimanded by the prison for providing help to other inmates in preparing wits of habeas corpus. The provision that he had violated stated, "No inmate will assist or advise…to prepare writs or other legal matters. When a man believes he is unlawfully held…he should state his complaint in letter form and address it to a lawyer or judge. " (Justia & Oyez & US Court Forms, 2004) The District Court ruled that this provision was void because it in effect barred illiterate inmates from their right of habeas corpus, since if they cannot read or write, they obviously could not write a letter. The State appealed the ruling by the lower court...
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