Prisoners' Rights

Prisoners' Rights

The ACLU National Prison Project is dedicated to ensuring that our nation’s prisons, jails, and other places of detention comply with the Constitution, domestic law, and international human rights principles, and to ending the policies that have given the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world. We promote a fair and effective criminal justice system in which incarceration is used only as a last resort, and its purpose is to prepare prisoners for release and a productive, law-abiding life at the earliest possible time.

Through litigation, advocacy, and public education, we work to ensure that conditions of confinement are constitutional and consistent with health, safety, and human dignity. Our goals include substantially reducing the existing incarcerated population, especially among people of color, the mentally ill, and other vulnerable populations; ending cruel, inhuman, and degrading conditions of confinement; increasing public accountability and transparency of jails, prisons, and other places of detention; and expanding prisoners’ freedom of religion, expression, and association. Achieving these goals will result in a criminal justice system that respects individual rights and increases public safety for everyone, at greatly reduced fiscal cost.
Read more about the ACLU National Prison Project »


Prison reform must address many problems currently plaguing the incarceration system, including:

Medical Care in Prison

The government has a responsibility to provide adequate medical care to prisoners in their custody. With limited access to the outside world, prisoners are sometimes denied the medical attention they need.

Mental Health Care in Prison

Too often, conditions of confinement can exacerbate existing mental illness or have negative psychological effects on prisoners without mental illness. Prisoners must receive adequate mental health care to ensure that they don’t leave the corrections system worse off than when they entered.

Prison Conditions

We should increase transparency and accountability of corrections officials to safeguard against unsanitary conditions, overcrowding and abuse at the hands of corrections officials or other prisoners.

Private Prisons

Prisons run by for-profit corporations drive the demand for more people to be locked up, while at the same time ducking public scrutiny and accountability.

Restriction of Prisoners' Rights

Restricting the constitutionally protected rights of prisoners, such as their right to read and write what they choose or practice their religion, can make it harder for them to successfully re-enter society.

Solitary Confinement

Locking prisoners in a tiny cell for as many as 23 hours a day, with no human contact and often without access to natural light or reading and writing materials, inhibits the rehabilitation of prisoners, exacerbates or creates mental illness, and costs too much.
Read more:
Stop Solitary - The Dangerous Overuse of Solitary Confinement in the United States »

Prisons should focus on safety, rehabilitation, and the effective use of limited resources.


Prisoners' Assistance Directory

(2012 resource): A list of national and state-based organizations that assist prisoners and their families in various capacities.

Know Your Rights: Medical, Dental and Mental Health Care

(2012 resource): Prison officials are obligated under the Eighth Amendment to provide prisoners with adequate medical care. This principle applies regardless of whether the medical care is provided by governmental employees or by private medical staff under contract with the government.

Know Your Rights: Freedom of Religion

(2012 Resource): Generally, beliefs that are "sincerely held" and "religious" are protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Know Your Rights: Publications Sent by Mail

(2012 Resource): Restrictions on prisoners’ access to publications cannot be arbitrary; they must be “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” That said, in practice, courts often will accept the judgment of prison authorities in deciding whether censoring a publication is reasonable.

Know Your Rights: Legal Rights of Disabled Prisoners

(2012 Resource): Statutes exist under both the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to protect the rights of prisoners with disabilities.

Know Your Rights: Environmental Hazards and Toxic Materials

(2011 resource): Exposing prisoners to dangerous conditions or toxic substances may violate the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Prison officials violate the Eighth Amendment if, with deliberate indifference, they expose a prisoner to a condition that poses an unreasonable risk of serious damage to that prisoner’s future health.

Know Your Rights: The Prison Litigation Reform Act

(2011 resource): The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) makes it harder for prisoners to file lawsuits in federal court. This fact sheet outlines the information you need to know before filing a lawsuit.

Know Your Rights: Privileged and Non-Privileged Mail

(2011 resource): The Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution entitles prisoners to receive and send mail, subject only to the institution's right to censor letters or withhold delivery if necessary to protect institutional security, and if accompanied by appropriate procedural safeguards.

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