History of Prisoner's Rights

The following video is a sample lesson from the Bachelor's of Science Degree in Corrections & Juvenile Justice Studies degree program.

Once an individual has been found guilty and sentenced to prison, many people assume that he or she has, or should have, no rights.  Until the 1960s, this was true to some extent.  Before the 1960s, federal and state courts refused to hear prisoners’ rights cases or decided those cases in such a way that made it clear that prisoners had few, if any, or the rights of free people.  This era was called the “hands-off” era, meaning that the courts rarely became involved in prisoners’ rights cases.

Consider the early example of Ruffin v. Commonwealth in 1871.  In this case, the Virginia Supreme Court stated that the inmate was a “slave of the state,” with only those rights given to him by the state.  Later, in 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Wolff v. McDonnell that prisoners have not lost all of their constitutional rights.

Even though inmates were originally seen as slaves of the state, there were some early court decisions that condemned inhumane treatment, but there were no effective procedures to secure prisoners’ rights.  During the “activist era,” also known as the Warren Court era (1953-1969), the Supreme Court gave a number of opinions that expanded the civil rights of several groups, including prisoners.

Published on December 17, 2013