There was a time when inmates were considered to be little more than subhuman slaves of the state by the criminal justice system. Judges once maintained that prisoners had no rights and thus could not do anything to impede their punishment, no matter how cruel and life threatening. The courts maintained that prisoners had given up these rights when they committed the crimes that put them in jail.
However, things have changed a lot in the United States since the 19th century. During the 20th century, laws were put in place to ban cruel and unusual punishment of prisoners in the U.S.
Changes in Prisoner Rights during the 1960s
The Civil Rights Act of 1871 was used to champion the cause of prisoners’ rights in the 1960s. The act was originally written to enforce civil liability on those who deprive others of their constitutional rights. In 1961, the United States Supreme Court would rule that these liabilities applied to state officials in federal courts during the Monroe v. Pape case. The ruling also had the capacity to be used in cases of prisoners’ rights.
A Supreme Court case in 1962, Robinson v. California, asserted that the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution applied to cruel and unusual punishment of prisoners of the state. Our courts still hold that prisoners have fewer rights than other citizens, however, and some say the tide may be turning toward a more hands-off approach, similar to that of the 19th century.
The State of the Eighth Amendment
Who knows what the current face of prisoner rights in the United States would look like if it weren’t for the Eight Amendment? This amendment specifically prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Such punishment could come in the form of inhumane living conditions, insufficient medical care, failure to protect from attacks, the use of force or deliberate indifference to pain, suffering and threats to medical health.
There are still many grey areas when it comes to the Eighth Amendment and prisoners’ rights, though. While many prisoners’ rights advocates argued that overcrowding was a form of cruel and unusual punishment, the court decided in the case of Bell v. Wolfish in 1979 that double cells were not unconstitutional. In other cases, prisoners have sued over use of force and lost, depending on the seriousness of their injuries. We still uphold the general rights of prisoners, however, as part of being a civilized nation.