Cases in the News
Legal Information
Ask me a Question
About Kevin Adams
Contact Information



A basic UNDERSTANDING of the civil rights of prisoners


Authored by:

Kevin D. Adams

The information provided in this pamphlet is designed to provide the reader with basic legal information. This information is not intended to be legal advice and you are encouraged to consult an attorney regarding your specific legal needs.


All prisoners have basic civil rights that are protected by the Constitution of the United States. If you are a prisoner or you have a family member or friend who is in prison or jail, you should know what your/their rights are;

Prisoner rights are generally governed by the 8th Amendment of the US Constitution that states that “cruel and unusual punishments” will not be “inflicted” on incarcerated persons.  However, several other Constitutional Amendments are not protected in prison. The loss of the Fourth Amendment is the loss of protection against unwarranted searches and seizures while in prison. A prisoner’s rights conform to constitutional rights that create at the least a minimum standard of living. Being imprisoned is a rehabilitative process, not one of violence against a criminal. Prisoner rights are usually decided by the facility and particular state of incarceration. (Examples: Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976) (deliberate medical neglect of a prisoner violates Eighth Amendment); Jackson v. Bishop, 404 F.2d 571 (8th Cir. 1968) (beating prisoner with leather strap violates Amendment). Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25 (1993) (prisoner who alleged exposure to secondhand ''environmental'' tobacco smoke stated a cause of action under the Eighth Amendment)).

Prison officials have a legal duty to refrain from using excessive force and to protect prisoners from assault by other prisoners. (See Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994)).

Inmates have the right to be free from sexual crimes, including sexual harassment. (See Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994)).

Inmates have the right to complain about prison conditions and voice their concerns about the treatment they receive. They also have a right of access to the courts to air these complaints. (See Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343n (1996)).

Disabled prisoners are entitled to assert their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure that they are allowed access to prison programs or facilities that they are qualified and able to participate in. (See United States v. Georgia, 163 L. Ed. 2d 650 (2006)).

Inmates are entitled to medical care and attention as needed to treat both short-term conditions and long-term illnesses. The medical care provided must be "adequate." (See United States v. Georgia, 163 L. Ed. 2d 650 (2006)).

Inmates who need mental health care are entitled to receive that treatment in a manner that is appropriate under the circumstances. The treatment must also be "adequate." See Clark-Murphy v. Foreback, FED App. 0047P (6th Cir. Feb.6, 2006)).

Inmates retain only those First Amendment rights, such as freedom of speech, which are not inconsistent with their status as inmates and which are in keeping with the legitimate objectives of the corrections system, such as preservation of order, discipline, and security. In this regard, prison officials are entitled to open mail directed to inmates to ensure that it does not contain any illegal contraband or weapons, but prison officials may not censor portions of correspondence that they find merely inflammatory or rude. (See Turner v. Safely, 482 U.S. 78 (1978)).

Inmates have the right to be free from racial segregation in prisons, except where necessary for preserving discipline and prison security. (See Johnson v. California, 543 U.S. 499 (2005)).

Inmates do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their prison cells and are not protected from "shakedowns," or searches of their cells to look for weapons, or illegal contraband. (See Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517 (1984)).

Inmates are entitled, under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution, to be free from unauthorized and intentional deprivation of their personal property by prison officials. However, if the State provides “predeprivation” process at sometime after the initial taking, the procedural due process requirements may be satisfied. (See Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527 (1981)).

The Supreme Court has held that inmates who are the subject of disciplinary investigations or proceedings are entitled to advance written notice of the claimed violation and a written statement of the facts, evidence relied upon, and the reason for the action taken. The inmate is also entitled to call witnesses and present documentary evidence if allowing him to do so would not risk order, discipline, and security. In that regard, inmates are rarely allowed to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses in an internal disciplinary proceeding. (See Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974)). (Note: In most cases, an inmate is not entitled to representation by counsel in a disciplinary proceeding.)

Inmates are entitled to a hearing if they are to be moved to a mental health facility. However, an inmate is not always entitled to a hearing if he or she is being moved between two similar facilities. (See Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480 (1980)).

A mentally ill inmate is not entitled to a full-blown hearing before the government may force him or her to take anti-psychotic drugs against his or her will. It is sufficient if there is an administrative hearing before independent medical professionals. (See Washington v. Harper, 494 U.S. 210 (1990)).

Prisoners are entitled to access to the courts. (See Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343 (1996)). However, in 1996, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which has been seen by many critics as unfairly limiting inmate access to the federal court system. The PRLA contains five major provisions:

  • Prisoners must exhaust internal prison grievance procedures before they file suit in federal court.
  • Prisoners must pay their own court filing fees, either in one payment or in a series of monthly installments.
  • Courts have the right to dismiss any prisoner's lawsuit which they find to be either "frivolous," "malicious" or stating an improper claim. Each time a court makes this determination, the case can be thrown out of court and the prisoner can have a "strike" issued against them. Once the inmate receives three "strikes," they can no longer file another lawsuit unless they pay the entire court-filing fee up front. (Note: If the inmate is in risk of immediate and serious physical injury, the three-strike rule may be waived.)
  • Prisoners cannot file a claim for mental or emotional injury unless they can show that they also suffered a physical injury.
  • Prisoners’ risk losing credit for good time if a judge decides that a lawsuit was filed for the purpose of harassment, that the inmate lied, or that the inmate presented false information.



At times inmates and their families need skilled “non-attorney” research assistance for issues that arise from a conviction and incarceration. If you or a family member needs Paralegal help call Edwin Couse of Paralegal Services Unlimited at 661-253-1427 or email ed@scsrus.com.

In addition, following is a list of other sources of information regarding the civil rights of prisoners, their families, and friends involved with the criminal justice system.

Human Rights Watch: Prisons

1630 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 500
Washington , DC 20009 USA
Tel: 1-(202) 612-4321, Fax: 1-(202) 612-4333

Innocence Project

100 Fifth Avenue, 3rd Floor
New York , NY 10011

Tel: 1-212.364.5340

Prison Activist Resource Center (PARC)

PO Box 339
Berkeley CA 94701
Tel : 1-510-893-4648 

U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics

Bureau of Justice Statistics

(Prison Statistics)
810 Seventh Street, NW
Washington , DC 20531

Tel: 1-202-307-0765

ACLU of Oklahoma

3000 Paseo Drive
Oklahoma City , OK 73103
Tel: 405-524-8511



Journal, NPP's biannual newsletter featuring articles, reports, legal analysis, legislative news, and other developments in prisoners' rights. An annual subscription is $30 ($2 for prisoners). 

The PLRA: A Guide for Prisoners is part of a special issue of the NPP Journal still available to prisoners for $2 a copy. Written by John Boston, Director of the Prisoners' Rights Project of the NY Legal Aid Society, it provides a comprehensive explanation of the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

The Prisoners' Assistance Directory includes contact information and services descriptions for over 300 national, state, local and international organizations that provide assistance to prisoners, ex-offenders and families of prisoners. It also includes a bibliography of informative books, reports, manuals and newsletters of interest to prisoners and their advocates. Latest edition to be published in late 2005.


To order any of these publications, send a check or money order to National Prison Project Publications, 915 15th St., NW, 7th Floor, Washington, DC  20005


Copyright ©2006 Kevin D. Adams

Disclaimer: Kevin D. Adams only provides legal advice after having entered into an attorney client relationship, which this website specifically does not create. Only after having entered into a representation agreement with Kevin D. Adams will an attorney-client relationship have been created. It is imperative that any action taken by you should be done on advice of legal counsel.* Because every case is different, the descriptions of outcomes and cases previously handled are not meant to be a guarantee of success.

Home | Cases in the News | Legal Information| Commonly Asked Questions
Ask me a Question | Links | About Kevin Adams | Contact Information

Tulsa Criminal Defense Lawyer: Kevin D. Adams


  Photograph of desk and legal papers