Houston Criminal Defense Blog

Inmate Rights


The United States houses a higher percentage of its population in prisons and jails than most other countries. Even though alternative sentences to replace imprisonment have gained some media attention recently, chances are that if you, a member of your family or a friend is convicted of committing a crime in Houston, the sentence might include incarceration.

Bear in mind that many people are detained in jails throughout the country awaiting trial. Although they have been charged with violating the law, they are presumed innocent until proven guilty at a trial, but they remain confined because they cannot make bail. It is important to know your rights as an inmate and how to go about asserting them.

Prison Conditions and the Eighth Amendment

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Court decisions interpreting what conditions or treatment amount to cruel and unusual punishment have evolved over the decades since the Bill of Rights was made part of the Constitution.

Today, cruel and unusual treatment is anything that is either inhumane or violates an individual’s dignity. This can pose a problem for government officials faced with the task of housing prisoners in facilities that were built in the mid-19th century. Courts have ruled that the rights of inmates were violated by confining them in a building that lacked proper toilet facilities, was a firetrap and subjected prisoners to rodents and insects.

Sexual Harassment and Assaults

Government officials responsible for conditions within prisons are responsible for the health, welfare and safety of the inmates. Allowing an environment to exist in which prisoners are subjected to such physical harm is a violation of their constitutional rights. This would include permitting the following conditions or activities:

  • Sexual harassment
  • Assault
  • Rape
  • Sodomy

Courts have sided with inmates who complained that abuse of prisoners was allowed to take place without the institution’s administrators taking steps to put an end to it. This could include abuse by prison staff or by other prisoners. Inmates at one facility were successful in challenging the failure of officials to offer adequate medical care and treatment. They also proved that female inmates were not offered access to the same programs offered to males.

Access to Courts and Freedom from Retaliation

An inmate has the right to complain about conditions within a jail or a prison without fear of retaliation. For example, a prisoners who file lawsuits or complaints against prison officials should not be segregated from other inmates or have administrative action taken against them because of it.

Medical treatment and mental health care should be available to all inmates. It would be a violation of an inmate’s rights to deny care or treatment to that person simply because he or she complained about the quality or manner of delivery of the care given.

Rights of Disabled Prisoners

The Americans with Disabilities Act has been held by the courts to apply to Houston inmates. Officials cannot deny services, programs or the use of facilities to an inmate based upon that individual’s disability.

Restrictions on Inmate Rights

The rights a person has while in prison come with some limitations. Prison officials must maintain a safe and secure facility, so an inmate’s freedom of speech may be restricted where doing so is consistent with maintaining order. In this regard, inmate mail, both incoming and outgoing, may be opened, read and censored by guards and officials.

A prisoner’s access to mail is subject to the right of prison officials to prevent contraband, such as drugs or weapons, from entering their facility. This ability to control prisoner mail does not include the right to censor statements that officials might find to be offensive.

Searches and Seizures of Prisoners and Their Cells

Maintaining security does not allow the right of privacy that people enjoy outside of prison walls to exist on the inside. Inmates give up their Fourth Amendment right to privacy when they enter a jail or prison where random searches are part of the normal routine of the facility.

Inmates have a limited right to be present while a search is conducted of their cells. They must remain outside of the cell in a place where they can observe the search without interfering with it. The search is not, however, subject to the presence of the inmate. Guards may proceed with a search even if the inmate is not present as long as the opportunity was given.

Exercising Your Rights with the Help of a Houston Attorney

Exercising your rights can be difficult if you are confined to a jail or prison. A Houston criminal defense attorney may be able to assist you to take your complaint of a denial of rights to court or through an administrative appeal process.

Contact the Law Offices of Billy Skinner

If you believe your rights have been violated while in prison, contact the the Law Office of Billy Skinner immediately. We will fight hard to protect your rights and freedom. Call 713-600-7777 or email today.

Photo FiDalwood | Used under Creative Commons image attribution license 2.0

Categories: Criminal Defense