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The Twenty Minute Trainer: Inmate Rights: They Have Them! (Like it or Not)
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 06/04/2018

Incarceration The following article has been reprinted with permission from IACTP's Correctional Trainer, June 2018.

I teach an in service course for jail officers-Avoiding Liability. I am not a lawyer-but I am a jail veteran with many years of experience. Inmate rights can be discussed often in training; the important things for correctional officers to remember is that number one-inmates, through the courts have been granted limited rights under the United States Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights-the first ten amendments. Number two-if personnel through gross negligence, deliberate indifference or just plain stupidity violate these rights and are found liable-they may lose their jobs. In addition, staff who are found liable may be criminally charged and may be ordered to pay out large sums in punitive damages. Many cases involve the Eighth Amendment, prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. Denying inmates medical care, mental health care, and using excessive force on them are the big violators of this amendment. Mail, visiting and religion fall under the First Amendment, searches are under the Fourth, and lack of due process concerns the Fourteenth.

There are various ways to present training about the constitutional rights of inmates. Some agencies have an attorney come in and conduct training. On line videos can be presented. Finally, a training officer can research court cases and references and present. It is an interesting subject, and court decisions are coming down frequently that have an impact on the field of corrections. My approach is not to take the time to divide up the courts into federal, state, appellate, the U.S. Supreme Court, etc. I ‘lump’ all of the courts together, saying that courts consult each other’s cases, and their decisions taken as a whole can provide insight into what the courts are thinking about inmate rights.

But-back to the central issue. Inmates have rights. Why? Because the corrections system in the United States is arguably the most humane in terms of providing services to inmates and treating them like people. However, there are cases where corrections staff have made mistakes-some deliberately and the courts have found in favor of the inmates. Inmates can still sue. But filing a lawsuit is one thing-but winning is another. Due to the passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) inmates must exhaust all “administrative remedies” or grievances, before filing in federal court. The PLRA is designed to reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits from inmates and channel their complaints into the institutions’ grievance systems (Cornelius, 2017, pp. 296-298). It does not curtail or reduce the constitutional rights of inmates. If a lawsuit is filed, and the court thinks that it is a serious issue that could have an impact on inmates’ well-being-the case will be heard.

Every corrections staff member that is responsible for the confinement of inmates must have a working knowledge of inmates’ constitutional rights. Many of us have heard remarks such as “Inmates have more rights than we do”, or “Inmates should have thought about their rights before they did what they did to get locked up”. Another remark may be something like “The courts can’t tell us what to do”. These are views that are narrow minded and ignorant-and if followed can get your staff into trouble.

There are many sources where the rights of inmates are clearly listed or discussed. One of these sources can be your own facility’s Inmate Handbook. Also, there are sources on line from organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union that put inmates’ rights into a clear, readable format.

One source that I came across was the website for Indiana County, Pennsylvania. In the section concerning the jail, inmate rights, privileges and responsibilities are clearly written. It can serve as a handy guide for any jail officer. I will summarize inmates’ rights (Indiana County, PA):

Inmates have the right:
  • To be treated impartially, fairly and justly.
  • To a nutritious diet, clean and adequately fitting clothes.
  • To personal grooming choices, which must meet facility guidelines for safety, security, hygiene or clear identification.
  • To send and receive personal and official mail, subject to facility limitations concerning contraband and/or inflammatory materials.
  • To engage in visits with family or friends, subject to facility rules.
  • To be addressed by name in a respectful, not derogatory manner.
  • To be free from discrimination based in physical or mental limitations, political views of jail administration’s decisions and access to privileges, services and programs. Inmates will not be discriminated against based on their race, religion, national origin, sex or age.
  • To exercise, subject to correctional interests and restrictions.
  • To be supervised by staff, not other inmates.
  • To be free and not subjected to deliberate personal injury, corporal punishment, deliberate damage to property, excessive force by staff, inmate assault and harassment.
  • To have voluntary access to religious services and clergy.
  • To have access to a grievance procedure or system.
  • To have access to legal materials, legal counsel, correspondence and private visits with attorneys.
  • To have access to medical, dental and mental health care.
But having just a working knowledge of inmate rights is not enough. Correctional staff should be aware of The Ten Steps to Protect Against Inmate Lawsuits. They do not guarantee that you will never be sued, but they can work to both prevent the possibility of lawsuits and your defense in court. They are (Cornelius, 2017, pp. 346-347):
  1. Recognize potential problems: Inmate safety, self-harm, inmate medical problems, inmate mental health problems, substandard conditions, etc.
  2. Education and training: Trainers and supervisors must keep up with developments in case law, legal statutes, standards, etc. concerning inmates’ constitutional rights and present staff training.
  3. Selection and hiring: Staff who may cause problems or are potential ‘hotheads’ should not be hired. Use performance evaluations to correct bad behavior.
  4. Correct policies and procedures: All should be in compliance with correctional standards, court decisions, legal statutes and case law.
  5. Supervision: All supervisors must be mobile and know what is going on inside the facility, and take corrective action.
  6. Discipline: Problem staff who are not respecting the rights of inmates must be dealt with firmly and swiftly. This includes counseling, suspension, demotion or termination.
  7. Communication: Staff must communicate with each other concerning the care and safe custody of inmates. Supervisors must respond to inquiries about issues and incidents that could incur liability.
  8. Documentation: Written records may help you defend yourself and the agency in court.
  9. Watch the attitude!: Courts punish inmates, you do not. Staff with attitudes of punishing and demeaning inmates are dangerous.
  10. Watch Out for Each Other: If you see a fellow staff member making a mistake or acting in a way that violates inmates’ rights, you have a duty to report it. Do not stand by and do nothing-you may be held liable.
In summary, we all know that inmates are entitled to limited protections under the United States Constitution. They have rights-whether you like it or not. Everyone who interacts with inmates should have a basic knowledge of these rights. Also-they must know how to protect themselves from the possibility of inmate lawsuits. We all know that being sued is an occupational hazard. What we must do is work to lessen that possibility.

Cornelius, Gary F. (2017). The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide, Third Edition. Durham: Carolina Academic Press.
Inmate Rights, privileges and Responsibilities, Indiana County, Pennsylvania, http://www.countyofindiana.org/

Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. His prior service in law enforcement included service in the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs and classification.

He has been an adjunct faculty member of the Criminology, Law and Society Department at George Mason University since 1986, where he has taught four corrections courses. He also teaches corrections in service sessions throughout Virginia, and has performed training and consulting for the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association and the National Institute of Justice. His latest book, The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide: Third Edition was published in April 2017 by Carolina Academic Press. He has authored several other books in corrections. Gary has received a Distinguished Alumnus Award in Social Science from his alma mater, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and an Instructor Appreciation Award from George Mason University.


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