Charles Manson. Jeffrey Dahmer. Ted Bundy. Yes, even the most monstrous criminals in our nation have basic legal rights that are safeguarded by the Constitution. If you are facing criminal charges that could lead to incarceration, you need to know your legal rights. If you have a family member or friend behind bars, you should know his or her rights too. While this is a general introduction to the rights of convicted inmates, if you or someone you love is behind bars and needs legal assistance, an experienced San Francisco civil rights attorney can provide the legal advice you’ll need regarding any specific violation of an inmate’s rights.

What are the rights of those who are held in custody? Pre-trial detainees – that is, those who have been charged with a crime, cannot afford bail, and are awaiting trial – have the legal right to be held in “humane” facilities. They must be fed adequately, have access to adequate personal facilities and medical care, and not exposed to extreme temperatures. Pre-trial detainees cannot be treated like convicts while they are merely awaiting trial.

Under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, convicted inmates must be protected from conditions that constitute “cruel and unusual” punishments. Back in 1848, the Supreme Court defined “cruel and unusual” punishments to include “drawing and quartering, embowelling alive, beheading, public dissecting, and burning alive,” among other things.

Today, the definition of a cruel and unusual punishment is generally considered to be any punishment that is injurious or that violates a person’s basic human dignity. In 1995, for example, a federal court ruled that holding inmates in a facility that lacks toilets is cruel and unusual punishment.

PRECISELY WHAT RIGHTS ARE RETAINED BY INMATES?

Inmates have the right to be free from victimization by sex crimes including sexual harassment. Inmates have the right to be heard regarding prison conditions, and they have the right to have those complaints considered by the courts. A federal court in Iowa, for example, awarded one inmate more than $7,000 in damages after he was put in solitary confinement for a year – for complaining about prison conditions.

Disabled prisoners are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure their equal access to prison programs and facilities. Inmates have the right to adequate medical care, and those who need mental health treatment are entitled to that care as well. Violating these rights can make prison authorities liable for damages. If your rights – or the rights of someone you love – have been violated in a California jail or prison, discuss the situation with an experienced San Francisco civil rights attorney. You may have grounds for a lawsuit, and in some cases, you may even be awarded compensation.

Due process, conviction, and incarceration have the effect of legally taking some of a person’s rights. Inmates keep only the rights that are consistent with their inmate status and that do not obstruct the maintenance of a prison’s order and security. Thus, prison authorities may open an inmate’s mail to ensure the security of the prisoner and prison, but they may not censor letters that are offensive, rude, or highly opinionated. Sending and receiving letters is a prisoner’s right, but convicts do not have the right to face-to-face meetings with journalists. Journalists must request permission to interview any prisoner, and that permission is frequently denied.

Inmates have no right to privacy in their prison cells. Those cells can be randomly searched at any time for drugs, weapons, or other contraband. Inmates who are targeted for disciplinary investigations or proceedings must receive advance written notice of the alleged violation and pending investigation or proceeding. The notice should outline the facts, charges, and evidence against the inmate. Inmates are seldom permitted to confront or examine their accusers in such proceedings, and inmates are not entitled to legal counsel in such proceedings.

WHAT IS THE PRISON LITIGATION REFORM ACT?

In response to a rise in inmate litigation in the federal courts, Congress in 1996 passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which has limited inmate access to the federal courts. The PLRA restricts the discretion of federal courts in inmate litigations. Under the PLRA, a court “shall not grant or approve any prospective relief unless the court finds that such relief is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right.”

The PLRA has five main provisions:

  • Inmates must pay their own filing fees when they take complaints to court.
  • Inmates must exhaust a prison’s own grievance process and procedures before a lawsuit can be filed in a federal court.
  • Courts may dismiss any inmate’s lawsuit found to be frivolous, malicious, or inaccurate. When a court dismisses a lawsuit on these grounds, the inmate may have a “strike” issued, and if a prisoner receives three strikes, he or she cannot file a subsequent lawsuit unless the entire filing fee is paid up front. Courts may waive the three-strike rule if there is evidence that an inmate is at risk of immediate physical harm.
  • Inmates may not file a claim for mental or emotional injury unless they have sustained a physical injury and they can prove it.
  • If a prisoner lawsuit is filed simply for harassment purposes or contains false allegations that an inmate knows to be false, the inmate can lose credit time for good behavior.

WHEN RIGHTS ARE VIOLATED, WHAT RECOURSE DO INMATES HAVE?

A California inmate whose rights have been genuinely violated should contact – or have a loved one contact – an experienced San Francisco civil rights attorney. A good civil rights lawyer can review the details of an inmate’s complaint and explain the inmate’s rights, options, and prospects for prevailing in court. However, inmates and their loved ones should understand that California courts generally defer to prison officials regarding prisoners’ rights.

Provided that the conditions of an inmate’s incarceration are consistent with the inmate’s sentence and do not otherwise violate the Constitution, judges generally allow prison officials broad discretion in the details of managing a prison and handling the inmates. However, if the courts in California find that prison officials have violated the Constitution or have otherwise violated a prisoner’s basic rights – particularly the right to protection from cruel and unusual punishment – the court will act on the inmate’s behalf and grant relief.

If you feel that you or a loved one’s right were violated, contact the Civil Rights attorneys of Geonetta & Frucht, LLP. We will work tirelessly to protect your rights and get you the possible outcome.

By: Fred Geonetta

Frederick J. Geonetta is a graduate of the University of California, Hastings College of Law. His legal practice is entirely devoted to litigation. Mr. Geonetta has spent the past 25 years in private practice representing both plaintiffs and defendants who have been harmed or wronged by the actions of others or who have been falsely accused of causing harm to others. He represents clients across the U.S. and international clients who seek U.S. legal advice or representation.