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Legal Rights of Prisoners

The Hands-off Period

During most of the history of the United States, prisoners had no legal right to humane conditions of confinement that could be judicially enforced. This view was so strong that one much-cited case even described a suing prisoner as a "slave of the state" (Ruffin v. Commonwealth, 62 Va. (21 Gratt) 790, 796 (1871)).

The hands-off doctrine precluded judges from determining what rights survived incarceration. Judges refused to intervene on the ground that their function was only to free those inmates illegally confined, not to superintend the treatment and discipline of prisoners in penitentiaries. The pull of the hands-off doctrine was so strong that claims of racial discrimination were not heard. Even safety issues were ignored. In one case, a federal court refused to hear from inmates whose lives were endangered by being held in overcrowded conditions in a firetrap. Even under these conditions, because of the hands-off doctrine, the judge declined to intervene (Ex parte Pickens, 101 F.Supp 285, 287, 290 (D.Alaska 1951)).

Underlying the hands-off doctrine were concerns about the appropriate reach of federal judicial power. Courts feared that separation of powers and federalism would be violated if courts intervened in the operation of state penal institutions. They would be using federal power to dictate to the states how to run their own institutions—the management and control of these institutions are generally viewed as executive and legislative functions. By adjudicating claims in favor of the state inmates, the federal courts also expressed concern that, contrary to principles of federalism, they would be intervening in state affairs. Finally, the courts doubted their ability to fashion meaningful relief when improvements in prison conditions required additional funding.

The attitude of the courts and the prison officials worked hand-in-hand to deny prisoners' rights. The courts believed that they lacked the expertise to become involved in prison management and the corrections officials perceived judicial review as a threat to internal discipline and authority. The specter of excessive workloads may have influenced judges also. With large numbers of prisoners willing to press a wide variety of claims, judges invoking the hands-off doctrine may have done so to avoid being inundated with prisoner petitions. Even if the petitions proved meritorious, a judge would have to spend a great deal of time handling the case. The hands-off doctrine served to ease the court's workload; once the court determined the claim was based on a prisoners' rights theory, the suit was automatically dismissed. But, the doctrine imposed costs, the most serious being that the merits of potentially worthy complaints were never reached. This meant that there was little judicial pressure to improve prison conditions.

The hands-off doctrine was eventually discredited. Courts and commentators began to recognize that the separation of powers does not foreclose judicial scrutiny when the legislature or executive acts unconstitutionally (Note). They also recognized that courts regularly invalidate laws that violate citizens' constitutional rights. In fact, a major function of courts in the U.S. constitutional system is to ensure that constitutional rights are preserved and protected.

The argument that courts lack expertise in prison management was also criticized. The argument is based on a misconception of the judiciary's role. The consideration of a particular practice on constitutional grounds rarely, if ever, requires a court to assume management of the penal institution. Even when it orders changes in policy a court does not have to engage in management of an institution. That can be left to prison officials who have the authority to find the best way administratively to implement the court's decision.

Further, arguments of counsel and the taking of testimony, including the testimony of expert witnesses, supply the expertise needed for accurate decision-making by the court. The courts have an additional supervisory resource—the use of appointed masters to assist in carrying out their orders. Finally, the possibility of "opening the floodgates" to frivolous petitions has always been the cost of operating a judicial system. This possibility has never been deemed a valid excuse for denial of constitutional rights. The courts have procedural means to control the filing of frivolous suits without refusing to entertain the meritorious actions. (Moreover, new restrictive methods of controlling this problem have been legislated through the Prison Reform Litigation Act, which is discussed below.)

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawLegal Rights of Prisoners - History Of Prisoners' Rights, The Hands-off Period, The Beginnings Of Prisoners' Rights Law—the Civil Rights Era