1 minute read

Prisons: History

Prisoners' Rights

It was not until the 1940s, or so that the legal rights of prisoners gradually began to be expanded. A series of federal court decisions started to give inmates greater access to the courts, reversing a long-standing "hands-off" doctrine. From the late 1950s to the late 1970s, a pesky prisoners' rights movement growing out of the larger civil rights struggle significantly transformed the ability of prisoners to seek and obtain legal redress through the courts. In Monroe v. Pape (1961), the U.S. Supreme Court enabled attorneys to seek damages and injunctions in federal court against state abuses of an individual's constitutional rights. Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court issued a series of opinions favorable to criminal suspects, which benefited many prisoners, but the Court made few decisions improving prison conditions. It was not until the 1970s, under Chief Justice Warren Burger, that the high tribunal intervened in a few cases affecting conditions of confinement, and more of the federal activism on behalf of prisoners occurred at lower levels within the federal court system. In 1975, for instance, U.S. District Court Judge Frank Johnson issued a comprehensive order mandating sweeping changes in Alabama's entire prison system. Similar orders were handed down in Texas and other states.

The bloodiest prison riot in American history occurred at New York's Attica Correctional Facility in September 1971, resulting in the death of forty-three persons, most of them inmates. All but one of the fatalities occurred during the police assault on the hostage-takers. The Attica rebellion was followed by massive federal and state funding of control technologies and programs, including heightened security, emergency control, public relations, program services, and inmate discipline.

But Attica did not put an end to major prison disturbances. In 1980 the New Mexico State Penitentiary at Santa Fe was the scene of horrific carnage among prisoners resulting in thirty-three deaths.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPrisons: History - Early Jails And Workhouses, The Rise Of The Prisoner Trade, A Land Of Prisoners, Enlightenment Reforms