During my four years in prison, one of the sayings I heard from prison guards was: “If you don’t like it, you shouldn’t be in prison.” One of the white shirts (the guard in charge) used to say this to Respond to every prisoner complaint.
Sometimes, that’s an appropriate response, but usually, it’s a load of crap, at least in my opinion. I don’t understand why some people think that taking away your liberty is not enough punishment for any crime committed.
I assure you – for the vast majority of crimes – being taken against your will and placed in a locked box for years is, in my opinion, punishment enough. There’s rarely a moment when prisoners can be considered inferior or less than human, unless they’re some kind of violent serial killer or rapist. But even so, they were cut off from society in the harshest of ways.
Having all your options taken away and every part of your life under someone else’s control is the worst. So what happens when a prison or prison goes too far? Can an inmate sue the prison?
In today’s blog post, I’ll cover the following topics:
- Do prisoners have civil rights?
- Can an inmate sue the prison?
- Ruiz v Estelle
Do prisoners have civil rights?
When a person is in prison, they lose many of the civil rights they enjoy in a free society. This is especially true if they are housed in a maximum security facility — where prisoners are locked in their cells 22 to 24 hours a day.
However, all prisoners uphold the constitutional rights to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, access to counsel, and protection from cruel and unusual punishment. Additionally, if someone is unlawfully detained, they can challenge their incarceration through a habeas corpus petition.
But when it comes to common violations such as unsanitary or dangerous environments, inappropriate medical treatment, and physical and sexual assaults, things get a little trickier.
Whenever such violations occur in a correctional facility, courts must weigh the severity of the violation against the need for the prison to maintain security.
Can an inmate sue the prison?
The answer to this question is yes, if a prisoner believes their rights have been violated, he or she can sue the prison. However, under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) of 1996, prisoners must take certain steps before filing a lawsuit.
The law makes it harder for prisoners to bring direct lawsuits against prisons. In order to file a complaint, there are some strict guidelines.
Prisoners must first exhaust all administrative remedies in accordance with the prison’s official complaint procedures. They must file a written appeal for each claim and must lodge a complaint with prison officials. If the appeal is denied, an appeal must be lodged.
Of course, grievance procedure policies do vary from facility to facility. But before prisoners can bring their claims to court, they must go through the proper channels. In most cases, prisoners should be able to obtain a copy of the complaints procedure from the warden.
However, even if an inmate wants to sue the prison and they go through all the appropriate channels, there is no guarantee that they will have a chance in court.
In civil cases, prisoners need legal representation, and outsiders need to work on their behalf. Most prisoners do not have access to the legal resources they need to sue themselves while in prison.
Ruiz v Estelle
Ruiz V. Estelle is a case concerning conditions of prison incarceration, making it the furthest case in the legal system. The 1972 civil suit began with a handwritten petition by inmate David Resendez Ruiz, which he filed with the Texas Department of Corrections.
He claimed conditions at the Texas prison where he was being held included overcrowding, lack of access to health care and abuse of security. Ruiz claimed the prison violated his constitutional right to object to cruel and unusual punishment.
Other inmates eventually joined Ruiz’s petition, which became a class action known as Ruiz v. Estelle. The case was brought to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, which ruled in Ruiz’s favor. Judge William Justice’s 1979 decision led to sweeping changes and more oversight of the Texas prison system.
To resolve appeals of the decision, a deal was reached whereby the state capped prison populations at 95 percent of prison capacity, separated hard-core offenders from other inmates, hired more guards and improved medical care.
Until 1994, Judge Justice exercised strong oversight of the prison system to ensure state compliance, according to the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. By 2003, his oversight was more limited.
Litigation against prisons does not always end in the prisoner’s interest. But, they can make a difference by shining a light on what’s going on inside some of our correctional facilities. Like the case of ADX -Florence, a SuperMax prison in Colorado.
If you don’t know what they did to the prisoners there, check out the Marshall Plan titled How America’s Most Famous Federal Prison Confronted Its Dirty Secrets.
Do you think prisoners should have more rights in prison? Or, did they get “what they deserved”? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Sources: Do prisoners have civil rights? Can they successfully sue for violations? The Texas Politics Project -- Cruel and unusual punishment: Ruiz An American Gulag: Descending into Madness at Supermax How America’s Most Famous Federal Prison Faced a Dirty Secret