Are You Aware of Your Inmates Rights?

Updated on 10/19/2022

Are You Aware of Your Inmates Rights?

When a loved one is sentenced to jail or prison, you might fear that they will be placed in circumstances that will jeopardize their health – and their life as a whole – on a daily basis.

While it’s generally true that incarcerated individuals will have a less-than-comfortable experience during their imprisonment, this does not mean they should expect to be subjected to inhumane conditions throughout their sentence.

Regardless of their crime, an inmate retains certain inalienable rights that cannot be infringed upon. Unfortunately, many inmates – and their loved ones – don’t truly understand these rights, making it easier for them to be taken advantage of.

In other words, it’s important to learn what rights your loved ones retain while in prison, and to understand what can be done if prison staff oversteps their bounds. But before we discuss the rights inmates still have while in prison, let’s clarify the rights they forego once they are sentenced.

Rights Inmates Surrender

Once an individual is sentenced to jail or prison, they immediately forfeit a number of the rights that are guaranteed to free citizens. For the time of their imprisonment, inmates waive their fourth amendment rights. This means they waive the right to deny law enforcement officials from conducting searches of their person and property.

Should they choose to do so, officers can search a prisoner and his belongings whenever they like. (Note: Inmates do have the right to receive certain items in the mail, such as postcards and photographs . However, before such material is delivered, it will need to be approved by prison personnel.) Labor laws also don’t apply to incarcerated individuals.

The thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery, specifically exempts prisoners from such rights. For prisoners, there is no minimum wage they must be paid, and no maximum number of hours they are allowed to work. Note that many of the things we might consider human rights are actually privileges.

Most – if not all – of these unofficial privileges are stripped from anyone who has committed a crime and been sentenced to prison. However, though an individual entering prison should anticipate a harsh experience upon being sentenced, they should still expect to be treated like a human being. The following is a list of rights all inmates retain, regardless of the severity of their crime.

The Right to Be Free from Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Cruel and unusual punishment is defined as “such punishment as would amount to torture or barbarity, any cruel and degrading punishment not known to the Common Law, or any fine, penalty, confinement, or treatment that is so disproportionate to the offense as to shock the moral sense of the community.”

This right is guaranteed by the eighth amendment and ensures that prisoners retain some semblance of dignity throughout their sentence. Although the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” may conjure up images of torture and other horrific scenarios, it also applies to actions such as the following:

  • Withholding of food and shelter
  • Restricting access to shower and restroom facilities
  • Any arbitrary punishment not deemed acceptable by administration

Though an inmate has been sentenced to prison in order to pay their debt to society, they have a right to not be subjected to dehumanizing conditions that jeopardize or endanger their health and safety.

The Right to Be Free from Sexual Harassment and Assault

In addition to the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment, inmates should also not be subjected to sexual harassment or assault, either.

Sexual harassment involves the use of derogatory or explicit language, derogatory treatment, or any other action which, while not necessarily physical, is sexual in nature.

Sexual assault involves physical violence of a sexual nature, no matter how minor it may seem to bystanders or outsiders.

Inmates are protected from experiencing sexual harassment or assault from other inmates, as well as from prison personnel and administration.

Personnel who are either directly involved with such behavior or know of such behavior occurring can – and should – be held accountable for their actions (or inaction, as the case may be). Even government officials may be held liable if it’s discovered they knew about such abuse happening and refused to take action.

Those who commit sexual harassment or assault on a prisoner are in severe violation of that inmate’s rights.

If your loved one is being victimized by fellow colleagues or prison staff members, make it known to administration – and perhaps law enforcement outside the prison – immediately.

The Right to Be Free from Discrimination

When it comes to discrimination, inmates retain the same rights as free citizens. Discrimination refers to unequal treatment of an individual or group of individuals based on their race, religion, ethnicity, disability, gender, and sexual orientation.

Discriminatory practices include segregation, the use of derogatory language toward an individual (specifically referencing the characteristics mentioned above), and even preferential treatment toward a specific individual or group (again, based on the above characteristics). In general, any action that singles out such characteristics of an individual – in either a positive or negative light – can be considered discrimination.

Many recent court cases have ruled in favor of inmates who claimed they were being discriminated against. If your loved one feels as if they are being treated unfairly due to circumstances beyond their control, consult an attorney immediately.

The Right to Proper Medical Care and Accommodations

Inmates who suffer from disease and disability – either pre-existing or current – have the right to both treatment and assistance. However, the care and accommodations inmates are privy to is defined only as “adequate” and “reasonable.” In other words, the institution will provide just enough care or accommodations to simply alleviate symptoms, not actually treat the disease.

Even more, unfortunately, obtaining proper medical care can sometimes be difficult for inmates. Because prison staff is not required to report every instance in which an inmate claims to be ill, a sick prisoner’s request for assistance may not be taken seriously.

In order for an inmate to prove their right to medical care has been violated, they must prove staff members showed a “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs.” Additionally, the standard for “deliberate indifference” is much higher than negligence: it means inmates must prove that staff members knew of and disregarded their medical needs.

Although you and your loved one may face an uphill legal battle when it comes to obtaining proper medical care in prison, it’s important that you do everything in your power to help them during such a critical moment in their life. An experienced attorney can help your incarcerated loved one get the medical care they need and deserve.

The Right to Free Speech (Within Reason)

The right to free speech – even as it applies to free citizens – is often misunderstood. And it gets a little more complicated when applying it to prisoners.

To clarify, inmates shouldn’t expect the high level of freedom of speech those outside prison walls have. Though they technically have a right to say whatever they want, their words can and will be used against them when it comes time for review and possible parole. In other words, if their words have rubbed prison personnel the wrong way, they’ll almost certainly pay for it later.

But, prisoners do have the right to report violations of the rights mentioned above to the proper authorities – without fear of punishment. If, for example, a prisoner were to complain to prison administration about the way a specific guard has been treating them, said guard cannot punish the prisoner strictly for speaking out.

However, if the prisoner – rather than going to the proper authorities – used derogatory language toward the guard, the inmate would likely face punishment either immediately or in due time.

In prison, an inmate’s voice can be their most powerful weapon – and should be the only weapon they use. If a situation occurs in which their rights – or the rights of others around them – are being violated, incarcerated individuals should feel empowered enough to speak out without fear of being unfairly persecuted.


Those who have been sentenced to prison can feel as if all of their rights as a citizen have been stripped from them. Though many of their rights have, for the moment, been restricted, imprisoned individuals retain their right to be treated as human beings, and to speak up whenever they feel their basic needs are not being met.

As a friend or family member of an inmate, it’s important that you watch for signs that your loved one’s rights are being violated during their sentence. Though you may feel helpless in your current situation, there are many ways you can help your incarcerated loved one get through what may be the most difficult time of their life.

For more information on what to expect when a loved one is sentenced to jail or prison, check out Pigeonly’s blog.