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Prisoners’ rights have been a controversial topic for as long as the United States has had prisons. While every country has a prison system, the United States stands alone in just how many of its residents it incarcerates. As of 2022, there are more than 2 million people incarcerated in American jails and prisons. The nation has the highest incarceration levels in the world, both as a per capita rate and in absolute numbers. Millions more are under criminal justice control via a vast system of supervision, parole, and probation.

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The Prison Policy Initiative documents and publicizes the impact incarceration has on people as well as on society at large. Their reports often demonstrate how the nation’s prison system is an outlier when compared internationally. The United Nations has issued a minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners (“known as the Mandela rules—which condemn the use of solitary for people with mental and physical disabilities”) to be upheld worldwide, in response to recognized human rights abuses occurring behind bars.

The United Nations has adopted human dignity as a core concern, as have other international and national governments. And yet, there is no explicit definition of “human dignity” that can serve as a guide. Instead it’s been left to “intuitive understanding, conditioned in large measure by cultural factors.” From an etymological standpoint, “dignity” derives from the Latin word dignitas, which means “worthiness.” This begs the following questions: How do American prisons and jails affirm the worthiness of incarcerated people? What practices make incarcerated people feel unworthy? With nearly 2 million people in the criminal justice system, it’s worth exploring how people on both the inside and outside have been a part of ongoing efforts to ensure and improve prisoners’ rights.

This curated list of materials aims to provide readers with a brief history of the American penal system alongside critical examples of advocacy for prisoners’ rights.

Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners

Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1990, this proclamation lists ten principles to ensure that people in prisons retain the dignity and value that would be afforded to them as if they were out of prison. The proclamation highlights rights to religious beliefs, education, healthcare, and more. This list is useful for helping students identify violations of human rights that incarcerated people face. The list is specific and thorough but brief enough to provide students with a framework for prisoners’ rights violations. It is recommended that students use that proclamation as they browse the American Prison Newspapers collection and identity evidence of rights being violated or rights being maintained.

Barnes, Harry Elmer. “The Historical Origin of the Prison System in America.” Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, 1921.

Published in the early twentieth century before the onset of mass incarceration across America, this article provides an in-depth overview of the evolution of prisons. Historian Harry Elmer Barnes begins with the eighteenth century, when imprisonment was “unusual, except as applied to political and religious offenders and debtors.” However, Barnes asserts that West Jersey and Pennsylvania Quakers made significant contributions to the development of imprisonment as “the typical mode of punishing crime, and…that this imprisonment should not be of idleness but at hard labor.” More detail about early America’s forms of punishment can be found in Charles Neal’s essay on the subject.

Labor and Commissary.” Issues in the Indiana Women’s Prison, 2017

This prison newspaper features an editorial about women’s prison labor, especially as it pertains to their ability to purchase items such as bras, mascara, and hygiene necessities. According to one woman at the Indiana Women’s Prison, one day of work “can yield between $0.78 and $1.50 a day, at best.” This newspaper reveals the injustices women in prison face and how they use poetry to speak out against the trauma of receiving inadequate healthcare.

The Red Hat Cellblock of Angola Penitentiary

This edition of the Angola Prison Rodeo newspaper provides a history of the Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka Angola), the largest maximum security prison in the United States. Located in Louisiana, the prison is situated on what used to be seven plantations in the late 1830s. In the institution’s early years of establishing itself as a prison, records reveal that 10,000 floggings were issued between 1928 and 1940. Under the management of R.R. “Tighty” Himes, a Louisiana State University business manager, the convict mortality rate reached an all-time high. Under Himes’s leadership, the prison constructed the Red Hat Cellblock, which “would gain much notoriety for the brutality and sadism the inmates were allegedly subjected to in it.” Although use of the Red Hat Cellblock was discontinued under Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, its presence reveals why Angola was once considered “America’s Bloodiest Prison.”

Jacobs, James B. “The Prisoners’ Rights Movement and Its Impact, 1960–1980.” Crime and Justice, 1980.

In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement of the 1960s, Black Muslims and jailhouse lawyers were using the law to challenge the prison status quo. A former professor of the New York University Law faculty, Jacobs calls for an appreciation of the impact the movement has had on public and political opinion as well as the self-esteem of prisoners and prison officials. While the movement has been lauded for its effects on prisons and prisoners’ lives, it is more than the “sum total of court decisions.” Like other social movements, the Prisoners’ Rights Movement is a result of “a shared sense of grievance” which is a response not only to the increasing incarceration rates at the time but the fact that Black people made up a majority of the prison populations across the nation.

Jacobs’s article is an extensive read—coming in at little under forty pages. However, his exploration of the movement is divided into two sections: the first section dissects the various federal and state legislative and administrative activity of the moment. In this section, Jacobs identifies activity by groups such as the Black Muslims as they sought religious freedom in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. According to Jacobs, there were roughly “66 court decisions pertaining to Muslims between 1961 and 1978.” Jacobs also calls attention to activity by state departments of corrections and lower federal courts. In the second section of the article, attention is given to conclusions and limitations of evaluating the movement’s impact. Jacobs notes that before the movement “wardens spoke of prison administration as an ‘art,’; they operated by intuition.” After the movement, wardens and other administrative staff were required to establish rational operating procedures. On the other hand, one of the successes of the movement was that it heightened the public’s awareness of prison conditions.

Although it’s long, this article serves as foundational reading to help students understand the movement and how it shifted discourse about prisoner’s rights. Additionally, it would be beneficial for students to identify shifts in prison administration and operations as they browse the American Prison Newspapers Collection.

How Prisoners Expanded the Civil Rights Movement,” 2021

This thirty-two minute video is an episode of Rattling the Bars, a news series hosted by former Black Panther and political prisoner Marshall “Eddie” Conway. The series presents data alongside anecdotal evidence to shift discourse about the justice system. In this episode, Conway is in conversation with Robert Chase, an Associate Professor of History at Stony Brook University. A scholar of carceral studies and civil rights law and politics, Dr. Chase offers insight into prison uprisings as documented in his book, We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners’ Rights in Postwar America. Chase gives key attention to the Texas prison system and movements such as the Black Power movement and the Chicano movement. Throughout the episode, Conway and Chase discuss court cases such as Cooper v. Pate and literature such as Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson.

This episode is a thorough and accessible resource for students to delve into the history of prisoners fighting for prisoner’s rights. It would be beneficial for students to use the video as an entry point into independent research about prison uprisings or prison writing. Additionally, many of the newspapers in the American Prison Newspapers collection report on laws and policies surrounding the criminal justice system.

“What Happens to People in Solitary Confinement.”

In this TED Talk, civil rights lawyer Laura Rovner explains what happens to the psyche when an individual is placed in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement can be traced back to 1829 at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. According to NPR, “It is based on the Quaker belief that prisoners isolated in stone cells with only a Bible would use the time to repent, pray, and find introspection.” However, according to Rovner, solitary confinement is a place where you’ll find men “decaying in isolation cells” instead. Rovner opens her talk with a vivid description of ADX Florence Prison, a federal prison in Colorado that houses people deemed “too dangerous.” She further asserts that solitary confinement is a form of torture the United States uses in its penal system: people are locked in cement closets and they can’t see any further than ten feet away. While in solitary confinement, Rovner reports that results of solitary confinement can include decaying eyesight, vocal cords that no longer work properly, and social withdrawal. This five-minute film by Cali Bondad and reporter Gabrielle Canon provides a snapshot of solitary confinement from incarcerated people.

Rovner places her speech in conversation with the United Nation’s plea that solitary confinement not be used for more than fifteen days. However, the reality is that some people spend years, even decades, in solitary confinement. This is evidenced by Rovner’s brief mentioning of Tommy Silverstein, who spent over thirty years in solitary confinement. This issue of the San Quentin newspaper reports on Albert Woodfox, a member of the Angola 3 who spent nearly forty-four years in solitary confinement at Angola.

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International Legal Materials, Vol. 55, No. 6 (2016), pp. 1180–1205
Cambridge University Press
Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 12, No. 1 (May, 1921), pp. 35-60
Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law
Unusual, 04-01-2017
Indiana Women’s Prison
Angola Prison Rodeo, 01-01-1979
The Angolite
Crime and Justice, Vol. 2 (1980), pp. 429–470
The University of Chicago Press
San Quentin News, Volume 2016, Issue 2, 02-01-2016
San Quentin State Prison
Recount, Volume 7, Issue 3, 10-01-1962
Colorado State Penitentiary