Prison law is a specialized area of the legal profession that addresses the human rights and representation needs of incarcerated men and women. While individuals who enter penal institutions do forfeit many freedoms, they typically should not become subject to a lesser law than that governing the land in which they serve their sentences. When the line between rights and freedoms is in question, legal representatives schooled and trained specifically in prison law are often needed.
There are high-profile stories of prisoners who have served long sentences for crimes they did not commit. Sensational cases of abuse within penal institutions have been reported in the popular media. Family members of those incarcerated may spend many years and exhaust their financial resources securing visits to see their loved ones. Each of these areas involves rights within the scope of prison law.
Cases of being denied medical treatment, being housed in unsafe facilities, and facing sentences that seem excessive for the weight of the crimes committed can be common for lawyers who work with prisoners. Overcrowding also can be a pressing legal concern. Many prison populations are outgrowing the capacity of their facility.
Proving that mistreatment or injustice has occurred and finding the means to research, hire, and compensate an attorney is extremely difficult for most prisoners. Men and women who are institutionalized can be uneducated or illiterate, may be completely alone after having harmed or alienated their families, often suffer from mental illness or depression that can prevent defensive action, and could be isolated through the very mistreatment for which they seek justice. Those who practice and administer prison law serve with an awareness of these challenges and of the prison systems they must navigate.
Typically, a small number of prisoners have the funds or family savings to acquire legal representation. Donated professional services, government allocations, and law student volunteers are common in the area of prison law. Representation from within the prison population can meet the needs of fellow prisoners as well, but this occurs mainly where law libraries and correspondence courses are available to provide legal education.
In countries where basic human rights may be an issue for even the general population, people serving sentences in prisons may hope to find a means of making unfair sentencing or substandard conditions publicly known. This also occurs in nations where human rights are central to governing but where the law has been misused. When injustice is exposed by the media or through a misstep of the accusers, prison law can become a strong tool in addressing the call for justice from outside the prison walls.