The world’s largest corrections system is found in the United States considering that one-quarter of the world’s prisoners are incarcerated in this country’s prisons or jails. This implies that one out of 100 citizens in the United States is a prisoner. Furthermore, statistics indicate that in 2011, approximately 2.4 million people were incarcerated in federal or state prisons or local jails. In fact, the total population of U.S. prisoners is seven times larger than the number of people imprisoned in all Canadian prisons/jails and eight times more than the total population of prisoners in most European countries (Sabath & Payne, 2012). The increase in the number of people under correctional supervision in the United States can be attributed to the country’s strict criminal justice system and punitive policies in the last forty years. As a result, since the early 1920s to 1970, the rate of imprisonment in the United States stood at 110 per 100,000 people. Afterwards, the total population of prisoners in the country increased by as much as 800% totaling over 7 million people who are either on probation, paroled or imprisoned (Sabath & Payne, 2012).
Despite the fact that the rate of incarceration is also growing in other countries, the United States takes the lead by as much as five times the rate in most western industrialized countries. On the other hand, the criminal justice system in the United States is not only known for its tendency toward over-criminalization and punishment, but is also reputed for its harshness and limited inmate rights. Actually, studies indicate that there is overcrowding in most prison facilities in the United States. Additionally, many inmates have reported cases of assault and homosexual rape involving prison guards and other prisoners. Moreover, privacy rights are unknown to most American inmates. It is also a commonly known fact that most ex-offenders are at the risk of losing their social, political, and economic rights even after serving a jail term. It then follows that approximately 4 million ex-offenders cannot vote nor can they stand to be elected into any public office (Easton, 2009; Morris, 2008; Sabath & Payne, 2012). This research paper compares and contrasts the prison inmate rights in the United States and other countries.
Inmate Rights in the United States
The criminal justice system, and hence, the correctional laws in the United States are based on the country’s constitution, statutes, case law, and regulations. Therefore, it is common practice for correctional departments to ensure that correctional litigation offer the offenders all the rights provided for in the U.S. Constitution. Furthermore, state constitutions in the United States are parallel to the U.S. constitution as far as correctional litigation is concerned except that some states may provide offenders with additional rights. Additionally, state legislatures have the powers to give offenders additional rights, which can only be conferred through the passage of regulations that provide for those rights. Here, it is worth noting that the U.S. constitution defines the basic criminal justice principles and procedures besides outlining the functions of all government institutions, the powers of government, and individual rights. Therefore, constitutional rights protect individuals against any form of limitation targeting their freedom, which may be contrary to the U.S. constitution. For instance, the Bill of Rights provides for basic protections against the government’s interference in an individual’s basic rights and liberties (Hawkins, 1985; Easton, 2009). More specifically, the constitutional rights relate to corrections in the sense that the U.S. constitution upholds the basic freedom of speech, religion, and association. Furthermore, the constitutional rights protect individuals from unfair searches and seizures besides outlining the requirements for the due process. Ultimately, the U.S. constitution prohibits cruelty and unwarranted punishments, particularly those directed to prison inmates.
Besides the U.S. Constitution, states follow their own constitutions, which in one way or another are parallel to the former except that they may consist of regulations that are specific to different states and local governments. However, according to the early 1960s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, all states are required to observe and respect all aspects of the Bill of Rights, which were initially meant to protect citizens against the actions of the federal government. This implies that the state and local governments’ powers are limited by the U.S. Constitution and state constitutions. Therefore, state courts are charged with the responsibility of deciding whether correctional conditions and litigations are in conflict with the state and federal constitutions or otherwise. Most importantly, some states offer offenders more rights than those provided for in the U.S. constitution. For example, electronic surveillance of correctional facilities is deemed unconstitutional according to a California court because it contravenes the inmates’ rights to privacy as provided for in state statutes (Easton, 2009). Generally, offenders do not lose all of their constitutional rights when they become convicted. In fact, all offenders possess the right to counsel, the right to speedy trial, the right to religion, the right against racial segregation, and the right to communicate with outsiders. Moreover, the U.S. Constitution dictates that all prisoners have the right against cruel and unreasonable punishments and other political rights such as the right to speech, belief, assembly, and association. However, it is important to note that some constitutional rights provided for by the U.S. Constitution may be limited when one is convicted of a crime. Specifically, when government interests such as the need to maintain institutional order or security and rehabilitation of inmates outweigh individual rights, then the government has the right to restrict some constitutional rights conferred to prisoners (Easton, 2009).
Apart from constitutions, inmate rights are also derived from statutes. Here, statutes refer to those laws which are passed by U.S. legislatures, particularly the U.S. Congress, with the aim of defining various crimes and punishments and for purposes of allocating resources to different criminal justice departments/agencies. Additionally, the U.S. Congress passes laws authorizing the development of correctional programs in relation to inherent criminal justice policies. Among the most important statutes passed by legislatures of the national and state governments is the penal code, which defines various criminal behaviors. However, since statutes contain more specific terms and rules, the courts find it within their powers to interpret their original meaning in relation to correctional litigation. Therefore, it is important to note that state legislatures have the powers to provide inmates with specific rights apart from those defined by the U.S. Constitution or other state constitutions. Accordingly, some states offer different liberty interests to prisoners, and thus, these rights must not be denied without following the due process of law. Furthermore, some states have passed legislations and statutes, which allocate specific duties to correctional officials. In the event that correctional officials fail to live up to their statutory duties, prisoners have the right to sue them (Hawkins, 1985). Moreover, if the claims made by prisoners against correctional officials are upheld by a court of law, they (prisoners) stand to be paid for damages besides receiving a court order that stops certain malpractices in prison.
On the other hand, inmate rights in the United States are based on case law or court decisions. Therefore, the U.S. Constitution gives judges the power to create laws or modify the available laws in order to fit into specific cases. Accordingly, the decisions reached by U.S. judges must adhere to the existing constitutional provisions, statutes, or other decisions from previous cases. Moreover, legal principles informing court decisions may change on a case-by-case basis. As a result, the case law (common law) gives the most flexible form of inmate rights, which responds to societal changes. Furthermore, as opposed to constitutions, which lack clarity and definite meanings, case laws are more specific and they can change from time to time (Hawkins, 1985). Another important aspect of prisoner rights in the United States involves federal, state, or local government regulations that govern corrections policies. As a result, correctional agencies are given the constitutional powers to make regulations that serve specific purposes such as maintaining the health and safety of prisoners. More specifically, correctional departments or agencies have the powers to make regulations in relation to the type of personal items that can be allowed into prison cells. Moreover, regulations are important in prison because they specify the manner in which searches can be carried out in prison besides outlining various ways of conducting disciplinary procedures. Most importantly, correctional officials may make regulations which define the time and duration of visitations from family members and other outsiders (Hawkins, 1985; Easton, 2009). Overall, regulations guide the behavior of prisoners, their families and friends, and most importantly, correctional officials.
Inmate Rights in Other Countries
Similar to the United States, where inmate rights are incorporated into written constitutions, prisoners in most other countries in the world possess various rights provided for by the constitutions of their home countries. However, research shows that there are major differences in the way prisons are operated in different countries, and therefore, the range of rights available to inmates varies greatly. For instance, unlike in the United States and the United Kingdom whereby inmates are not allowed to vote even after serving a jail term, prisoners in other countries such as Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Finland, and some third world countries have the right to vote. Moreover, in most western industrialized countries, prison regimes are governed by international human rights law and standards as opposed to the United States whereby the laws governing prisons are derived from constitutions, case law, statutes, and regulations (Ross, 2011; Easton, 2009). Moreover, similar to the United States, prisons in most developing countries are overcrowded, and the conditions are always harsh and punitive. However, as opposed to the United States whereby prisoner rights are at least written on paper, and hence, they can be used to challenge the practices of correctional officials in a court of law, most prisons in the developing world do not show any interest in prisoner rights. In fact, in most Caribbean countries such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, Barbados, and the Bahamas, prison conditions are deplorable, harsh, and inhumane. In most cases, prisoners have resorted to protests and riots in some of these countries in order to get the prison authorities to reconsider some of the harsh and inhumane practices (Morris, 2008). Actually, the prison conditions in these countries are not fit for human beings, and hence no one can claim that these prisons are guided by the international human rights law and standards. The situation becomes even worse in most African states where cases take a very long time to be decided, which implies that innocent people will stay in prison for long before justice is served. This means that these countries do not offer prisoners their constitutional rights or maybe they just disregard the prisoner rights altogether.
On the other hand, there are some major differences regarding prisoner rights in the United States and the United Kingdom. Unlike the United States and other countries in the world, the United Kingdom does not have a written constitution. This implies that individual liberties and freedoms are not formally guaranteed through constitutional documentation. However, despite the existence of parliamentary supremacy in the UK, courts uphold and emphasize the need to observe the rule of law in all government dealings. As a result, courts play a major role in protecting individual rights and for that case, prisoner rights (Ross, 2011; Easton, 2009; Ma, 2000). Here, the rule of law provides various guidelines which reflect the traditional legal processes provided for by the ordinary law in the UK. In so doing, the rule of law safeguards the basic liberties and freedoms of individuals considering that they are not subject to uninformed interference of the state. From the foregoing discussions, it is generally acceptable that the way prisoner rights are conferred in the United Kingdom is very different from the approach employed in the United States. However, it is important to note that written constitutions, statutes, or regulations are more rigid by all means possible. As a result, the legal documents outlining the prisoner rights in the United States are in most cases less flexible to changes in society. But in some cases, these legal documents can be withdrawn or suspended, particularly when government interests override the basic rights of individuals. Conversely, with the absence of a written constitution, the UK ensures that the rights of individuals are closely intertwined with the existing ordinary law. Consequently, the government has less of a chance in trying to change, suspend, withdraw, or alter the rights of individuals because this will mean that the whole structure of laws ceases to exist (Hawkins, 1985; Easton, 2009; Ma, 2000). Therefore, prisoners in the UK are more protected by the ordinary law of the land as opposed to their counterparts in the United States.
Basically, in the UK, the rule of law states that individuals cannot be punished unless they have committed offenses which contradict the existing law of the land. And in the event that an offense is committed, individuals are subject to the due process of the law, which dictates that an ordinary court of law possesses the power to try and punish offenders according to the law of the land. Moreover, the rule of law emphasizes the fact that no one is above the ordinary law of the land. This implies that all individuals are subject to the existing laws and answerable to a court of law irrespective of the status or position held within the state (Hawkins, 1985). Here, it is worth noting that the rule of law elucidates the basic rights and freedoms of individuals, and therefore, there is no need to write them in any formal document such as a constitution or statute. Furthermore, the rule of law protects the fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals by restricting the actions of the State, which might be considered aggressive or excessive. Most importantly, with increased awareness of the international human rights law and standards, the rule of law in the UK incorporates not only the basic rights and freedoms of individuals, but also the universal declarations and various conventions on human rights. For instance, the European Convention on Human Rights is a major international convention which protects individuals against arbitrary interference from the state.
Furthermore, the European Convention on Human Rights expounds on the suitable standards and procedures of criminal justice, which must be followed by all signatories to ensure that prisoners retain their fundamental human rights besides being treated with dignity (Ma, 2000; Ross, 2011). However, despite the fact that the UK has seemingly more prisoner rights than the United States; the current laws governing the criminal justice systems are not significantly different in the two countries. For example, both in the UK (with exceptions) and the United States, convicted prisoners are not allowed to vote. However, the restrictions governing the voting rights for prisoners in the United Kingdom are not as aggressive and discriminative as those found in the United States. In conclusion, it is important to note from the foregoing discussions that the criminal justice system in the United States is more restrictive and harsh compared to any other one in the world. Coupled with the tendency to follow federal and state constitutions and statutes in delivering criminal justice, the whole system in the United States is subject to arbitrary interference of the state and its agencies. As a result, prisoners are left unguarded against the punitive and aggressive actions of their government.