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What are Inmate's Rights?

By M. Lupica
Updated May 17, 2024
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The issue of an inmates' rights involves balancing the rights associated with being a citizen of the jurisdiction in which the inmate is incarcerated with the practical matters that incarceration involves. Perhaps the most controversial issue on this topic is an inmate’s rights to vote. Many jurisdictions have revoked the right to vote — called “disenfranchisement” — of anyone who is convicted of certain crimes. Given the limitations of a prison, civil rights such as inmates' rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion are at the forefront of this debate. Additionally, the dehumanization of prisoners through poor conditions in prisons is a topic that prisoners’ advocacy groups often target.

The disenfranchisement of an inmate’s rights to vote is a hotly contested topic in areas where the right to vote is considered fundamental to every citizen. For example, in some states in the United States, any person who is convicted of a felony — i.e., a crime that carries a punishment of one year imprisonment or more — loses his or her right to vote. However, many states have revoked any disenfranchisement laws that were once active.

Another inmates' rights issue is how incarceration interferes with various civil liberties. One common complaint is that freedom of expression is often limited by prison guards who order inmates not to speak in languages the guard cannot understand. Further, inmates who belong to religions that require special circumstances for prayer often find it difficult to do so given the restrictions of incarceration. The argument is that prisoners should have their religious beliefs accommodated by the prison for these special purposes. On the other hand, the prisons contend that being subjected to incarceration involves the abridgment of such fundamental rights.

Perhaps the most discussed issue of an inmates' rights is the conditions of prisons that house inmates. The overcrowding of prisons is an issue that is often discussed by inmates' rights advocates. The argument these organizations put forth is that by overpopulating these prisons with inmates, the conditions are impossible to keep sanitary and inmates are made vulnerable to harm by other prisoners as well as guards. Furthermore, housing more inmates than the staff is equipped to handle makes it impracticable to deliver adequate medical care to those who need it.

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