Those who are convicted of a crime are sometimes sentenced to serve time in jail or prison, where they lose many of the rights they previously enjoyed. However, incarcerated people still retain several important rights. When correctional facilities and their employees violate those rights, inmates can file lawsuits for compensation.
What Rights Do All Inmates Have?
Inmates retain certain rights regardless of their imprisonment status. However, these rights may be modified for the security of the correctional facility and the safety of those in it. For example, the right to freedom of speech allows inmates to send mail, but facilities can search the mail before it goes out.
The important rights that inmates continue to have in correctional facilities include:
- Freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.
- Right to due process.
- Freedom of speech.
- Freedom of religion.
- Right to equal protection under the law.
Through litigation and legislation, the law has specified some rights that fall under these broad constitutional freedoms. For example, the Supreme Court case Brown v_. Plata_ found that overcrowded conditions constitute as cruel and unusual punishment.
Inmates also have the right to:
- Live in humane conditions.
- Have hearings if law enforcement wishes to move them into mental health facilities.
- Receive protection from sexual violence.
- Receive adequate physical and mental health care.
- Not be racially segregated.
- Have accommodations according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- Not incur physical abuse from other inmates or staff.
Importantly, inmates also have the right to file complaints if any of their other rights are violated.
What If an Inmate Is Wrongfully Imprisoned?
In some countries, law enforcement can imprison someone and keep the person behind bars for months on end without so much as filing a formal charge. In the United States, people have the right to due process and a speedy trial. Law enforcement has strict timelines they must follow regarding detaining, imprisoning and charging accused people.
Anyone who believes that he or she is being held unlawfully, such as being held too long without a charge, can petition the applicable court for what’s called a “writ of habeas corpus.” The term habeas corpus is Latin for “you shall have to body.”
A writ of habeas corpus is a command from the court to bring the accused to court and prove that the person should be imprisoned. At this time, the government must make a case for charging the person or argue that the detention is lawful. If the court finds that a person is being held unlawfully, the judge may order the immediate release of the person.
Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA)
CRIPA sets up a system through which inmates and those in other institutions can file complaints if their rights are violated. However, the act does not cover all inmates. Incarcerated people in the following types of state-run or locally run institutions can use the CRIPA process to file complaints:
- Juvenile correctional facilities.
- Nursing homes.
- Mental health facilities.
- Facilities for those with mental or developmental disabilities.
CRIPA does not cover private or federal institutions, however. Anyone who is in a CRIPA-eligible facility and notices a violation of rights can file a complaint with the Department of Justice (DOJ) in the Special Litigation Department.
Suing Private Correctional Facilities
Many of the correctional facilities in the country are operated by private companies who have government contracts. Because the CRIPA does not apply to these facilities, many inmates have to go different routes to seek justice if their rights are violated. Primarily, inmates can file civil suits against correctional facilities.
To receive compensation from the lawsuit, inmates must prove:
- The prison had a duty to take care of the inmate.
- The prison did not fulfill that duty.
- The failure to meet that duty directly caused the inmate to be injured in jail.
- The inmate incurred damages that qualify for compensation.
For example, an inmate may wish to file a jail negligence lawsuit if the correctional facility refused to give a person the medical care he or she needed. If suing a county jail for negligence, the inmate may prove that the private prison had the duty to provide care because they had a contract with the government to do so.
Furthermore, the inmate may prove that the facility refused that care, which means the facility did not meet the duty. Finally, the inmate must show how that caused emotional or physical damage that requires compensation.
Suing Public Federal Prisons
Inmates whose rights are violated in publicly run federal facilities can also file jail negligence lawsuits in that they can name specific federal employees who are at fault. The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) outlines a process for suing federal employees. However, suing under the FTCA comes with a long list of limits.
Inmates can sue through the FTCA only if the at-fault party is a federal employee, not a private contractor with the government. Furthermore, the claim must be in line with state laws. Most FTCA lawsuits are about negligence, but some federal law enforcement officers can be sued for abuse as well.
Steps Required Before Filing Suit
Unlike when suing a private party, suing the federal government requires several steps before filing the suit in court. The inmate must file an administrative claim within two years of the inciting incident. Then, the agency has six months to respond. In the response, the agency may admit fault and agree to pay a settlement. However, they may also deny the allegations.
At this point, the inmate can choose to accept the settlement and avoid court, if the option is presented. Otherwise, the inmate has six months to file a lawsuit.
Suing While Still Incarcerated
Anyone who is thinking about suing a county jail for negligence ‒ or any other correctional facility for any violation ‒ should do so as quickly as possible. Depending on the violation, legal time limits may apply. In some cases, this means an inmate must file a lawsuit before his or her sentence is over.
Inmates have the right to file lawsuits while imprisoned. However, financial and logistical hurdles can make it difficult. For example, it can be hard for inmates to pay legal fees. However, some lawyers will work on a contingency basis. So, the lawyer only gets paid if the client gets money from the correctional facility.
Prison Litigation Reform Act (PRLA)
Congress passed the PRLA in 1995 in an effort to stop frivolous lawsuits and give more power to correctional facilities in solving issues. This act puts up some roadblocks to suing a correctional facility, such as filing a jail negligence lawsuit. Not following the PRLA requirements before filing a lawsuit can make it extremely difficult to get any kind of recourse later.
The PRLA requires inmates to exhaust every possible administrative option within the correctional facility before filing a lawsuit. States and individual facilities are allowed to specify which remedies they provide for civil rights violations. Only after the inmate has gone through the whole process can he or she file a lawsuit. The law provides an exception for a case in which no possible administrative fixes are available.
For example, an inmate who is injured in jail must ask the jail’s administration for the official policies regarding a complaint. Inmates can involve lawyers in this step, but they cannot officially file a lawsuit with the court unless the jail fails to fix the issue that caused the injury.
- Cornell Law: Prisoner's Rights
- Cornell Law: Brown v Plata
- ACLU: Know Your Rights
- FindLaw: Rights of Inmates
- Department of Justice: Rights of Persons Confined to Jails and Prisons
- FindLaw: Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons
- Department of Justice: How to File a Complaint
- FindLaw: Writ of Habeas Corpus
- FindLaw: 42 U.S.C. § 1997e - U.S. Code - Unannotated Title 42. The Public Health and Welfare § 1997e. Suits by prisoners
- FindLaw: Suing a Private Prison for Injury or Abuse
- NOLO: Suing the Government for Negligence: The Federal Tort Claims Act