Q&A: What Rights Do Prisoners Have in Pennsylvania?

While being in jail does mean the forfeit of some freedoms, prisoners do retain a number of constitutional protections. A handbook compiled by the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project provides an overview of prisoner rights in Pennsylvania based on both state and federal court decisions. Here are some of the major ones:

Access to the Courts

  • Prisoners have the right to present constitutional grievances to a court of law, and prison officials are required to assist them with legal paperwork.
  • Attorney-client communications are confidential. Prison officials who open or read inmate mail, listen to conversations or otherwise interfere with confidentiality could be charged in a lawsuit if it resulted in actual injury.
  • Inmates are allowed access to notary services, legal supplies, and photocopies.

First Amendment

  • Prison staff may not censor mail for inmates. Prisoners have a right to free speech in their correspondence.
  • Religious beliefs have constitutional protection. Inmates have the right to attend services and otherwise practice their religion.
  • Inmates have the right to receive visitors.
  • Prisoners may communicate with members of the media by mail.
  • Retaliatory conduct of prison officials against inmates who may have expressed grievances are not permitted.

Fourth Amendment

  • While there can be a number of searches conducted in prison, including cell searches, body searches, blood/urine testing, and visitor searches, prisoners are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Procedural Due Process

  • Inmates have the right to attempt to prove when solitary confinement poses an “atypical and significant hardship” as compared to ordinary prison life.
  • Prisons may not forcibly administer medication to inmates.
  • Prison transfers are constitutionally acceptable unless the transfer is to a qualitatively different prison where the prisoner will suffer stigmatizing consequences.
  • Prisoners are entitled to their property, or if lost or destroyed, the inmate may utilize the remedies made available by the state.

Eighth Amendment

  • Prisoners are protected against cruel and unusual punishment. Prison conditions must be humane.
  • Prison officials cannot deny medical care to inmates. Officials also cannot show deliberate indifference to healthcare needs.
  • Staff have a duty to protect inmates from prison violence.
  • Female prisoners may file sexual abuse cases against a perpetrator and the perpetrator’s supervisor.

Equal Protection

  • Prisoners should not be treated differently than their fellow inmates. There is heightened awareness for discrimination based on race, alienage (citizen vs. non-citizen) or national origin.

Americans with Disabilities Act

  • Inmates with physical or mental impairment must have equal access to prison programs and activities provided to their nondisabled peers, and prisons must offer reasonable accommodations.

If you believe a loved one may be suffering human rights violations in a Pennsylvania prison, consult with an attorney experienced in prisoner civil rights in Pennsylvania.  Please reach out to us to get the skilled legal guidance you need.