While there are some obvious limitations, prisoners in the United States retain certain rights that are considered basic human rights. Most of these rights are determined at the federal level, and it is federal law that applies to federal prisons. State prisons are also subject to these basic conditions, but there are also differences from state to state. This brief guide to Virginia prisoners rights will help you navigate the specifics.
Prisoners do not have full Constitutional rights, as some of these rights are revoked when a person is convicted of a crime. For example, convicted felons are not permitted to vote unless or until they have this right restored after they have served their sentence.
In Virginia, each person must make an individual petition in order to have voting rights restored. Governor Terry McAuliffe recently restored voting rights for many former offenders.
Perhaps the most commonly known right of prisoners is the Eight Amendment right which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The Constitution does not define “cruel and unusual punishment” so it has been the subject of much controversy throughout the history of the United States. One current debate on this subject involves prolonged solitary confinement. Some feel that this form of punishment is “cruel and unusual” while others, including many corrections officers, consider it a necessary tool in penal institutions. This matter will probably eventually be decided by the courts, as many such issues have been resolved in the past.
The Code of Virginia specifically prohibits whipping, flogging, or other similar corporal punishment. This is the only specific provision listed in Virginia law on the subject of inmate punishment.
Prisoners also retain the right to due process under the Fifth Amendment. For prisoners, this includes the right to administrative appeal and access to the parole process. Virginia law requires that legal counsel be provided for indigent prisoners who lack the financial resources to hire their own lawyer.
The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment also applies to prisoners. This means that prisoners cannot be treated unequally based on race, sex, or creed. The Model Sentencing and Corrections Act further specifies that prisoners cannot be discriminated against based on “race, religion, national origin, or sex.”
Prisoners have limited freedom of speech and religion under the First Amendment. The limits of these rights, however, are hotly contested and have been the subject of a number of lawsuits. Virginia law states that prison officials are “authorized to make arrangements for religious services for prisoners at times as [they] may deem appropriate.”
First Amendment claims by prisoners are evaluated under a precedent known as the Safley-O’Lone reasonableness standard. The standard is based on two U.S. Supreme Court cases, Turner v. Safley and O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz. These cases concered inmate correspondence, inmates’ right to marry, and inmates’ right to practice religion. The reasonableness standard established that it is valid to restrict inmates’ First Amendment rights if the restriction is “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.”
Certain federal protections extend to inmates. For example, individuals with disabilities are still protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Prisoners are also entitled to all basic human rights, including food, water, and medical care.
Beyond these limited Constitutional and human rights, very little is spelled out in Virginia law regarding prisoners’ rights. Certain programs such as substance abuse treatment and recreation are required in Virginia, but only to the extent that they are feasible given prison resources. The same is true of correspondence. These would be classified more as privileges and rights as they are provided largely at the discretion of prison officials.
The ACLU of Virginia keeps track of recent court cases concerning prisoners’ rights. Visit their site to keep up with current changes and new precedents in the court system.
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