Prisoners’ Rights

  • James McManus


The very idea that prisoners might have rights sufficient to demand a chapter devoted to that topic in a book on contemporary aspects of imprisonment is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Indeed, so recent is it that the chapter must commence with a clear enunciation of what is meant by ‘Rights’. This may appear unnecessarily pedantic or academic, but it is suggested that it is crucial to an understanding of what the contemporary situation is. Too often the term ‘prisoners’ rights’ is used to connote what are in fact at most ‘morally valid claims’. ‘Rights’ is used here to mean legally enforceable claims against the State, its offices or any other person, that something be done or not done, given or not given to a person in custody. ‘Morally valid claims’, on the other hand, are statements about what individuals or groups think prisoners should be allowed to do, or to have, or to be protected from.1 The difference is obviously crucial in any area. But, in the particular area of prisoners’ rights, it has a special significance. This is because until recently prisoners have traditionally had very few rights strictu sensu and, even now, are only beginning to establish some very basic ones. Therefore, for example, a pressure group like PROP (Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners) is, in this strict sense, working to preserve something that has scarcely existed.


European Convention Valid Claim Domestic Court Penal Establishment Legitimate Expectation 
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  1. 10.
    A good philosophical discussion of the Justice Model is given in H. Bedau, ‘Retribution and the Theory of Punishment’, (1978) 75 Journal of Philosophy, p. 601.Google Scholar
  2. For its practical implications see American Friends Service Committee, Struggle for Justice (1971).Google Scholar
  3. 11.
    The leading case is In re. Gault 387 U.S.1(1967). For a general review see N. N. Kittrie, The Right to be Different (1971).Google Scholar
  4. 23.
    The best general discussion of these cases is to be found in De Smith, Constitutional and Administrative Law 5th end. (1985) pp. 572–97.Google Scholar

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© Simon Backett, John McNeill and Alex Yellowlees 1988

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  • James McManus

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