One important distinction that is very important to keep in mind when discussing prisoner rights is the difference between rights and privileges. People tend to mention prisoners being able to watch TV, enjoy time outside in the yard, and even being able to socialize with other inmates as examples of rights. Not all of those are. To provide an example outside the prison system that people get caught up in: plenty of people incorrectly assume that they have the right to drive a vehicle. No one has the right to drive - it is a privilege afforded to you by your state of residence and respected by other states. That privilege can be revoked at any time. Rights under the law are more specifically moral or legal entitlements that every person deserves to have, whereas privileges are simply added benefits that the law has decided to grant only to those it deems worthy of having such privileges. Another easy way to think about it: rights are granted by default to everyone and are taken away under certain conditions, whereas privileges are default granted to no one and given to people who prove themselves worthy.
Are prisoner’s rights adequate?
Most of their rights are not sacrificed upon entering the prison system. They retain their Eighth Amendment right to avoid cruel and unusual punishment, their Fifth Amendment right to due process which gives them access to appeal their convictions or get conditional release through the parole system, as well as their Fourteenth Amendment right which protects them from unfair treatment or discrimination based on the protected classes. They are even free to practice their freedom of speech and religion, so long as they do not interfere with their incarceration behavior while in the prison (such as not yelling obscenities at the prison guards to get them all riled up) (Legal Information Institute, 2017). This is still a prison system and intentionally causing problems in such a volatile environment should not be allowed.
One area where prisoners are severely limited in their rights is their ability to continue voting in elections. Currently, all but two states restrict your ability to vote if convicted of a felony criminal act (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2017). The common justification of such laws is that felons can’t be trusted to make decisions in political matters, so we should just ignore their vote. While that seems like a strong ideal to follow, it’s hard to actually make that case. Plenty of people have also argued for having an intelligence test in order to be able to vote, but that’s frequently been struck down as ridiculous - and it is. The government is meant to represent all the people, not only the ones that the government chooses to represent, and so long as a person is capable of thinking and forming opinions of their own, their voice and vote should be heard.
Maintaining health is a right, not a privilege.
A lot of people seem to keep referring to a prisoner’s ability to go outside and work out or even socialize with others as privileges that are not needed and should be taken away. It’s difficult to emphasize how awful that would be to the point that it would blatantly violate their Eighth Amendment rights to avoid cruel and unusual punishment. See, our bodies need exercise to maintain our health, and our minds need socialization so that we don’t go absolutely insane. Sitting around in a cell all day every day for however many years your sentence is would be extremely bad for your physical and mental health. You would likely lose muscle mass and otherwise become a decrepit little human that’s not really capable of surviving on the outside anymore.
In the same regard, socializing on a regular basis is a vital part to maintaining mental health. In fact, past studies have continuously reported that solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time is extremely detrimental to a person’s mental state (Breslow, 2014). The fact is, socializing is a part of being human and helps us maintain a sense of presence. Without it, we’d all likely go crazy. So while going outside for exercise and having time to socialize seem like conveniences to a lot of people, they’re really not. They are vital parts of maintaining a prisoner’s health that are absolutely necessary things for them to do so that, when their sentence is up, they are not weak and psychotic individuals even more likely to commit crimes in the future. We certainly all don’t want that to happen.
Prison labor is already a thing.
Past those things, not all prisoners have as leisurely a life as people might think. Despite a lot of suggestions (and sometimes outright demands) that prisoners should have to work, a lot of prisoners do actually work. As of 2005, an amazing 88% of prisons in the United States had work programs set up in their prisons, some of which even provide small amounts of pay up to $0.40 per hour (Shemkus, 2017). But even if a prisoner isn’t involved in a work program like this, they are likely doing something more constructive than just watching television all day. Prisoners also have access to books, art supplies, and plenty of other constructive things that can help them become better educated, more functional, and more effective contributors to society upon their eventual return. After all, we don’t often complain about our kids sitting around at school all day doing nothing. They’re learning, socializing, and getting occasional exercise because we’ve realized that those are important things for both health and a productive future. We should not prevent inmates from attempting to improve themselves so that they can one day be a productive community member, which is exactly what we want them to be.
Inmate education isn’t actually “free.”
One important thing to keep in mind that a lot of people misunderstand is that not all inmates get a free education - only those who qualify for them. We’re actually not directing money specifically towards prisons to help in their education. Rather, the federal government made it so that prison inmates are allowed to apply for federal Pell Grants - something they were previously barred from doing because of their conviction status. Any student, imprisoned or not, who meets the qualifications for those grants can get the money and essentially receive a free education and it has nothing to do with being a prison inmate.
The problem for inmates is that, while they might otherwise be eligible for the grant if they were not incarcerated, the money is somewhat useless to them since they cannot actually attend a college or university for study. The Second Chance Pell Program was not an attempt to divert funds to educating criminals, but rather just building partnerships with colleges to bring the education to the inmates using the money they were already eligible to receive. Through that same program, inmates may still apply for the same federal student aid packages (and rack up student debt) like any other student, if they aren’t eligible for such grants.
Prisons are like a segregated community.
It’s true that the primary function of the prison system is not to act as a rehabilitation center. They’re designed to remove potentially dangerous people from the greater society so that everyone else will be safer in their day-to-day lives. But research has repeatedly proven that simply locking them up and hiding the key until it’s time for them to go home only makes the situation much, much worse. And that is what has caused the evolution of prison into the rehabilitation centers that people so much strive for them to be. That is a much more effective method of making sure they are both still capable of re-entering society after years of confinement and that they are less likely to commit another crime moving forward.
Most prisons follow this model, and run themselves as a small community. Inmates are able to go about their lives as a normal citizen would on the outside. You prepare for the day, eat your meals, potentially do some work or self-improvement, and then enjoy the evening unwinding. They’re just doing it in a much more restrictive setting with people constantly watching them do it.
One thing is for sure: If you treat criminals like human beings, they’re more likely to act like human beings.
Breslow, J. M. (2014, April 22). What Does Solitary Confinement Do To Your Mind? Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/what-does-solitary-confinement-do-to-your-mind/. Legal Information Institute. (2017, June). Prisoners’ rights. Retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/prisoners%27_rights. National Conference of State Legislatures. (2017, April 30). Felon voting rights. Retrieved from http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/felon-voting-rights.aspx. Shemkus, S. (2017, December 9). Beyond cheap labor: can prison work programs benefit inmates? Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/dec/09/prison-work-program-ohsa-whole-foods-inmate-labor-incarceration.