Last updated on: 10/5/2007 | Author:

Does the ACLU’s Protection of Prisoners’ Civil Rights Go Too Far?

PRO (yes)


Wesley Smith, JD, Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, and James Wootton, JD, Partner at Mayer Brown LLP, wrote in their June 13, 1991 article for the National Review, “Jailhouse Blues: Federal Judges Seem Infinitely Solicitous of the Inmates of State Prisons, and Nearly Indifferent to Their Victims, Past and Future. How Can Law-Abiding Citizens Begin to Redress the Balance?”:

“In 1993 prisoners filed 53,713 lawsuits in federal courts–7,615 more suits than the Federal Government filed against criminals.

Groups like the ACLU’s National Prison Project argue that states must treat prisoners much as they do citizens at large. Federal judges have agreed; and in their pursuit to elevate the legal status of prisoners to that of law-abiding people, they have removed the concept of prison as punishment, and with it much of the deterrent effect of imprisonment…

While federal judges see such decisions as principled constitutionalism, most prisoners see them as a weakness that demands to be exploited… This undermines rehabilitation efforts generally, as prisoners quickly learn that contempt for the system is rewarded…

Prisons have become more violent than ever before, and America’s streets have become more dangerous, as federal judges force the early release of violent criminals to reduce ‘cruel and unusual’ overcrowding.”

June 13, 1991


James C. Wilson, JD, Former Chief Counsel to the Committee on Government Reform in the US House of Representatives, wrote in his July 1994 article for Corrections Today, “Inmate’s License To Sue”:

“The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA)was used… for the first time [in 2002] to compel the Florida State Department of Corrections to distribute brutally racist and inflammatory [religious] treatises within Florida’s prison system… What is more, prison officials are required to invite individuals into the prison to promote the above described beliefs. If this isn’t enough, Florida will be required to pay over half a million dollars to the prisoners’ lawyers. Given this turn of events, taxpayers must wonder whether Congress has given prisoners a new mandate: ‘The Door’s Open, Take What You Want.’…

By expanding prisoners’ rights and augmenting the responsibilities of the individual states, Congress has forced a reallocation not only of correctional services, but of prosecutorial resources. While no one would debate that it is imperative to protect the legitimate rights of prisoners and that a number of inmate lawsuits have forced necessary changes in the state and federal systems, there comes a point where we must draw the line.”

July 1994


Jonetta Rose Barras, journalist, wrote in her July 19, 1996 column “‘Prisoners’ Rights’ Only Hurt Their Chances,” published in the Washington Times:

“Beware: The rights you protect may kill you, or at the very least cripple your community. That warning label should have accompanied a Maryland law that limits the demands that can be placed on inmates. Prison officials can only require inmates to take 90 days of schooling if they test below a certain reading level. Otherwise, prisoners can’t be forced to get out of bed, go to breakfast, take a shower or work on a job. ‘It’s an infringement of their constitutional rights,’ says Sharon Rucker, spokesperson for the Maryland Correctional Training Facility (MCTC) in Hagerstown…

By endorsing laws that disable people but masquerade as protection of individual rights – like the one in Maryland – the government stars as co-conspirator in the destruction of communities throughout the country, especially in urban centers dominated by African Americans.”

July 19, 1996

CON (no)


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stated in its Jan. 31, 2001 “Policy Priorities for Prison Reform”:

“Despite political rhetoric comparing prisons to hotels and resorts, the reality is that most prisons are overcrowded, often dangerous, provide sub-standard medical and mental health care and do nothing to prepare prisoners for when they return to the free world. For the past 30 years, the federal courts provided the last recourse for prisoners right to constitutional conditions of confinement. Now, the power of the federal courts is being restricted. Prisoners right of access to the courts is being limited, as a result, prison conditions will become harsher and more punitive…

The practice of overcrowding cells and subjecting prisoners to unsafe and unsanitary living conditions also continues to exist. The Constitution protects prisoners from cruel and unusual punishment; it is essential that their rights be protected and that inhumane treatment be prevented.”

Jan. 31, 2001


David L. Hudson Jr., JD, Research Attorney at the First Amendment Center, wrote in his Sep. 12, 2002 article for Findlaw’s Writ, “Why Two Federal Appeals Courts Were Right To Strike Down Limitations On Inmate Visits – One Which Unfairly Targeted Gay Inmates”:

“In this age of warehousing inmates, expanding victims’ rights, and building more prisons, many do not care about the constitutional rights of inmates. They argue that prisoners forfeited their constitutional privileges when they violated the rights of others in committing their heinous crimes.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has written: ‘Prison walls do not form a barrier separating inmates from the protections of the Constitution.’ Imprisonment itself… is the penalty. Further abuses suffered by inmates at the hands of prison officials are no part of that penalty, and should be recognized for the wrongs – and the law violations – that they are…

The protection of inmates’ constitutional rights is important not only in itself, but also because leaks in our constitutional cracks often begin in prison inmate decisions. When we curtail inmates’ rights, we inevitably end up curtailing our own as well… The extent to which we protect inmates’ constitutional rights – ensuring that, consonant with due process, they suffer the penalty to which they have been sentenced, and not a greater one – also shows us what type of progress we have made as a civilized nation and people.”

Sep. 12, 2002


Nina Ascoly, Coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign International Secretariat, wrote in her 1997 MA thesis “Trends in U.S. Incarceration”:

“As prisons become a common landmark on the U.S. topography, several trends emerge as significant–decreasing federal oversight of the prison sector and increasing controls on inmates. The imposition of legal fees, limited access to law libraries and other restrictions on access to or the ability to distribute information (via the media or visitors, for example) make it more difficult for inmates to assert their rights or make their conditions/cases known. Charging prisoners to pay for jury trials violates the 6th Amendment (right to a jury trial) and the 14th Amendment (equal protection under the law) and has been challenged by the ACLU in Virginia. Assessing fees for access to medical care also represents an abrogation of inmate rights. In some states such practices have been overturned as unconstitutional… while others have survived legal challenges.”