The Prisoners' Rights Movement of the 1960s - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Prisoners' Rights Movement of the 1960s

The Prisoners' Rights Movement of the 1960s

By Lorena O'Neil



Because the breadth of America’s civil rights movement stretched further than you may know.

By Lorena O'Neil

What if getting arrested meant becoming a slave of the state? For prisoners arrested before the 1960s, that was often the case. That’s until a few key cases, combined with the power of the civil rights movement, drastically changed how prisoners were treated in the United States.

In 1866 the U.S. Supreme Court of the United States ruled that prisoners have no constitutional rights in the case Pervear v. Massachusetts.  In 1871, a Virginia court even called a prisoner a ”slave of the state.” These cases said that a prisoner forfeits not only his liberty but also personal rights if convicted of a crime. For nearly 100 years, this “hands-off” doctrine meant the federal government did not interfere with state incarceration practices and policies.

It opened the floodgates for prisoners to air their grievances about the conditions of their imprisonment. 

Enter: the 1960s prisoners’ rights movement. Jones v. Cunningham, argued in the Supreme Court of the U.S. in 1962 and decided in 1963, said that state inmates had the right to file a court order of habeas corpus and challenge both the legality of their sentencing and the conditions of their imprisonment. This set the stage for a landmark case for prisoners’ rights: Cooper v. Pate.

An inmate at the Illinois State Prison said he was denied permission to buy certain religious publications, and stopped from consulting with ministers of his faith or attending religious services, solely because he was a Black Muslim. SCOTUS heard his case, and in 1964 ruled in a unanimous vote that prisoners had the right to protection under the Civil Rights Act of 1871. 

James B. Jacobs, a constitutional law professor at New York University, writes that Cooper v. Pate was a “crucial prison case” because “it left no doubt that prisoners have rights that must be respected.”

Many people running prisons and jails actually saw the prisoners’ rights movement as a plus…

This case opened the floodgates for prisoners to air their grievances about the conditions of their imprisonment. Lawsuit after lawsuit was filed in the 1960s and 1970s. Many leading prisoners’ rights lawyers had a significant amount of experience working for black civil rights, and they used the language and ideas of the civil rights movements to start a new body of law for prisoners.

Ken Kerle, author of American Jails: Looking to the Future says he traveled to many prisons and jails in the 1970s when lawsuits were being filed. “When I started traveling around the U.S., every institution I stopped at it was, so and so is getting sued,” he says. Kerle said that many people running prisons and jails actually saw the prisoners’ rights movement as a plus because the government was starting to see the advantage of giving these institutions more funding so that they could hire and train staff and run the places appropriately.

Prisoners were getting attention around the United States, not only for the abundant amount of lawsuits but also because of interest in rights due to the Attica prison riot – a four-day riot in New York in September 1971. 2,200 inmates seized control of the prison both in protest of better living conditions and in fury over the fatal shooting of a black radical activist inmate from another prison. 39 men were killed after National Guardsmen, prison guards, and police stormed the facility. As prisoners gained rights they also began to write and publish books about their experiences, and prison memoirs became very popular.

Many notable cases for prisoners’ rights followed Cooper v. Pate, ones that further solidified a turn away from the “hands-off” doctrine of the past and advanced the quality of jailhouse lawyering. As Kerle points out, there is still room for improvement in prison reform to this day, particularly since there are more than 2.4 million people incarcerated in America. But they are no longer stuck in the world of 1800s and slaves of the state, thanks to the SCOTUS of the 1960s and 1970s. 

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