Prisoners' Rights

The National Prison Project is dedicated to ensuring that our nation’s prisons, jails, and detention centers comply with the Constitution, domestic law, and human rights principles.

Prisoners' Rights issue image

What you need to know

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The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world鈥攁 rate five to ten times higher than those of countries like Canada, France, and the United Kingdom.
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A Black man is six times more likely to be incarcerated in the United States than a white man is.
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The United States is the only democracy in the world that has no independent authority to monitor prison conditions and enforce minimal standards of health and safety.

What's at Stake

A culture of punishment, combined with race- and class-based animus, has led the United States to rely on incarceration more heavily than any other country in the world does. The politicization of criminal justice policy and a lack of evidence-based assessment result in a one-way ratchet in which law and policy grow ever more punitive. The human and financial costs of mass incarceration are staggering, and the burden falls disproportionately on the poor and people of color. However, the recent fiscal crisis and years of falling crime rates have combined to create the best opportunity in decades to challenge our nation鈥檚 addiction to incarceration.聽

Far too many prisoners are held in conditions that threaten their health, safety, and human dignity on a daily basis. Tens of thousands of prisoners are held in long-term isolated confinement in 鈥渟upermax鈥 prisons and similar facilities. The devastating effects of such treatment, particularly on people with mental illness, are well known. Prisoners are a population with significant medical and mental health needs, but prisoner health care services are often abysmal, in many cases leading to needless suffering, disability, and death, as well as a serious threat to public health when contagious disease goes undiagnosed or untreated.

Prisoners鈥 rights to read, write, speak, practice their religion, and communicate with the outside world are often curtailed far beyond what is necessary for institutional security. Not only are these activities central to the ability of prisoners to retain their humanity, but they also contribute to the flow of information between prisons and the outside world and thus provide a vital form of oversight of these closed institutions. 聽

A culture of punishment, combined with race- and class-based animus, has led the United States to rely on incarceration more heavily than any other country in the world does. The politicization of criminal justice policy and a lack of evidence-based assessment result in a one-way ratchet in which law and policy grow ever more punitive. The human and financial costs of mass incarceration are staggering, and the burden falls disproportionately on the poor and people of color. However, the recent fiscal crisis and years of falling crime rates have combined to create the best opportunity in decades to challenge our nation鈥檚 addiction to incarceration.聽

Far too many prisoners are held in conditions that threaten their health, safety, and human dignity on a daily basis. Tens of thousands of prisoners are held in long-term isolated confinement in 鈥渟upermax鈥 prisons and similar facilities. The devastating effects of such treatment, particularly on people with mental illness, are well known. Prisoners are a population with significant medical and mental health needs, but prisoner health care services are often abysmal, in many cases leading to needless suffering, disability, and death, as well as a serious threat to public health when contagious disease goes undiagnosed or untreated.

Prisoners鈥 rights to read, write, speak, practice their religion, and communicate with the outside world are often curtailed far beyond what is necessary for institutional security. Not only are these activities central to the ability of prisoners to retain their humanity, but they also contribute to the flow of information between prisons and the outside world and thus provide a vital form of oversight of these closed institutions. 聽

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