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Going to prison means partially relinquishing your civil rights, but the United States Constitution is supposed to ensure prisoner civil rights. These laws are in place to protect the rights of even the most hardened criminals and inmates who can be maltreated, punished, or abused by the system. 


The United States has the highest incarceration in the world, with a black person six times more likely to be incarcerated than a white man. It is also the only democracy in the world that has no definite body established to monitor prison conditions or the rights of the prisoner. Whether it is to be treated fairly or protect their health and safety, prisoners have rights, and it is time you knew them.

One right, every prisoner should acclimatize themselves is the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. The law states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted”.

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It is very apparent what the law guards against, including imposing harsh or undue punishment on prisoners regardless of race, background, or offense committed. The clause of interest here is “Cruel and Unusual Punishment”. While it is impossible to measure precisely the level of cruelty in punishment, it is even more difficult determining what or why punishment is unusual. This is another cloak that shrouds this statement in mystery.


History of Prisoner’s Civil Rights

Although the Eighth Amendment protects the right of prisoners, it was added to the constitution because of the culture of punishment and discrimination happening in the prison system. Race, class, and the politicizing of the criminal justice system have led to tremendous financial and human loss. The use of force and maltreatment on prisoners is the reason for the Eighth Amendment.


However, there is a unique story to this amendment, the phrase was adopted told of a man named Oates Titus, and the punishment melted for the crime he committed. His sentence was to be held in a pillory and flogged for two consecutive days. This was viewed by many as cruel and unusual, excessive punishment, and not approved by the people.


The Eighth Amendment was the same as the 1689 English Bill of Rights. It was not added to the constitution until 1776 when George Mason included it in the Declaration of Rights for the Commonwealth of Virginia. This phrase was enacted and adopted in 1791 when the US constitution was reviewed.


Types of Prisoner Right Violations


Today the 8th Amendment protects the right of prisoners from been violated in the following areas:


The right to dispute their living conditions – this is the most common complaint from prisoners. Complaint includes living in dilapidated facilities with poor hygiene and sanitation, which is detrimental to the prisoners’ health. Some conditions also include crowded prisons, no access to good food and healthcare, or basic amenities to aid a decent living.


Other violations of prisoner’s rights are

  • Failure to provide safety to a prisoner making them prone to prison bully, harassment and abuse
  • Failure to allow a prisoner to practice their religion
  • Failure to provide nutritious foods to the prisoners
  • Failure to protect a prisoner from the maltreatment of a prison warden or guard
  • Preventing the prisoner from exercising, making or receiving phone calls
  • Maltreating a prisoner based on color or race
  • Failure to protect against sexual crimes and sexual harassment

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Rights that prisoners have in prison


The harsh prison condition and maltreatment of a prisoner, especially prisoners with mental health is a common trend in our systems. Whether we agree or disagree with a prisoner’s life, we cannot deny that they are human beings and need special care and attention.


Some prisoner rights are:


The right to healthcare – prisoner healthcare system is almost non-existent. Most times prisoners are left to battle with a health condition without any help leading to disability or even death. A case is how the Coronavirus is tearing through the US prisons with over 2000 inmates testing positive to the virus without showing any symptoms of the infection.


While some prison systems are looking to release prisoners with less time or those locked up for non-violent offenses, critics warn that it is too soon and too expensive. In this case, a prisoner has the right to request for healthcare service that will save his/her life or prevent a health condition from escalating.


They also retain their first amendment rights – the right to religion and expression. In line with this Amendment, prisoners have the right to practice their religion freely, write, speak, write, and communicate with the outside world. The First Amendment creates some sanity in the life of the prisoner and helps them passed through the tough conditions in prison.

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Remedies available to prisoners


If a prisoner feels maltreated by the warden or prison system, the inmate has the right to pursue legal options. It may be best for a prisoner to seek the knowledge they will need to pursue relief, look into legal aid, or consult a lawyer. However, if the prisoner decides to pursue a complaint, he/she can, but may only push forward the complaints based on the procedures available to them in their prison. Prisoners who decide to pursue their legal options may be able to use the federal civil rights statute that allow them to pursue cases in a federal court.


Retaliation faced by prisoners


There are concerns that some prisoners come under fire and are subjected to retaliation for asserting their prisoner rights. Several prisoners have had privileges and personal belongings taken away from them because they asserted their rights by making reports of physical abuse, mistreatment, and violations of their prisoner rights.


While litigation by prisoners with little to no outside support may be a challenge, such legal actions taken by prisoners and organizations have changed prison laws, policies, procedures, and how prisoners are treated while incarcerated. Overall, prisons were built to hold people who have committed crimes accountable.


Let’s be clear. It’s an ongoing topic that some people who are incarcerated may be innocent or sentenced unfairly. It may be a good idea for all prisoners to learn their rights or legal options or have outside support that can help them when faced with any violations of their prisoner rights.


All prisoners are supposed to have rights. Without passing judgement, it is nearly impossible for some folks to understand that some prisoners also have or had problems that they did not learn to resolve, seek solutions, failed to address, or saw no other way out, which may have led to their incarceration.

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The Eighth Amendment of prisoner civil rights aims to protect a prisoner’s rights and provide a prison life free of abuse and violations. Debatably, it does not accord enough rights to prisoners. Reports of prisoner abuse have occurred and still occur. If you know a prisoner who may believe that their Eighth Amendment right is been violated, you can get help from a lawyer or prisoner rights organization.

For more information about prisoner civil rights and the criminal justice system, click on the link below: 

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Constitutional Rights of Prisoners 9th Edition by John W. Palmer