Can You Sue Prison?

By Prison Insight Staff

Updated: August 19, 2021

A common phrase I heard from the prison guards during my four years of incarceration was: “if you don’t like it, you shouldn’t have come to prison.” One of the white shirts (the guard in charge) used to say that line in response to every inmate complaint. 

Sometimes, it was an appropriate response, but as a rule, it was a bunch of BS, at least in my opinion. I don’t understand why some people think that having your freedom taken away isn’t enough of a punishment for whatever crime has been committed. 

I promise you — for the vast majority of crimes — being taken away against your will and put in a locked box behind a gated wall for years is punishment enough in my opinion. Rarely is there a moment where it makes sense to treat an inmate as subhuman or less-than, unless they are some kind of violent serial killer or rapist. But even then, they’ve been segregated from society in the harshest way possible.

Having all of your choices taken away and having every part of your life under the control of others is the WORST. So, what happens when a prison or jail goes too far? Can an inmate sue prison?

In today’s blog post I will cover the following topics:

  • Do prisoners have civil rights?
  • Can an inmate sue a prison?
  • The case of Ruiz v. Estelle

Do prisoners have civil rights?

When a person is put in prison, they lose many of the civil rights that they enjoy in free society. If they are housed in a maximum-security facility — where inmates are locked in their cells between 22 and 24 hours a day — this is especially true.

However, all prisoners do maintain the constitutional rights of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to an attorney, and the right to avoid cruel and unusual punishment. Also, if someone is being held unlawfully, they can challenge their confinement with a habeas corpus petition.

But when it comes to common violations like like unsanitary or dangerous conditions, inadequate medical treatment, physical assault, and sexual assault, this is where things get a bit tricky.

Whenever these types of violations occur in a correctional facility, a court must look at the severity of the violation versus the prison’s need to maintain safety and security.

Can an inmate sue a prison?

The answer to this question is yes, an inmate can sue a prison if he or she believes their rights have been violated. However, before an inmate can file a lawsuit there are steps they must take because of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) of 1996.

This law made it more difficult for an inmate to file a direct lawsuit against a prison. In order to file a grievance, there are some strict guidelines. 

The inmate must first exhaust all administrative remedies by following the specific prison’s official grievance procedure. They must file a written grievance for each claim, and those must be filed with an officer of the prison. If the grievance is denied, an appeal must be filed. 

Of course, the grievance procedure policy does vary between facilities. But before an inmate can take their claim to court, they have to go through the proper channels. In most cases, an inmate should be able to get a copy of the grievance procedure from the warden.

But even if an inmate wants to sue a prison and they go through all of the proper channels, there’s no guarantee they will get the chance to go to court. 

In a civil case, an inmate needs legal representation and people in the outside world working on their behalf. Most inmates don’t have access to the legal resources they need to be able to file a lawsuit on their own from behind bars.

The case of Ruiz v. Estelle

The one case about the conditions of prison incarceration that made it the farthest in the legal system was Ruiz V. Estelle. Starting as a civil action in 1972, inmate David Resendez Ruiz began with a handwritten petition that he filed against the Texas Department of Corrections. 

He alleged that the conditions in the Texas prison where he was being held included overcrowding, lack of access to health care, and abusive security practices. Ruiz claimed the prison was violating his constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment. 

Other inmates eventually joined Ruiz’s petition and it became the class action lawsuit known as Ruiz v. Estelle. The case was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, and the court eventually ruled in Ruiz’s favor. The 1979 decision from Judge William Justice led to sweeping changes and more oversight of the Texas prison system.

To settle appeals to the decision, an agreement was made that the state would limit the inmate population to 95 percent of prison capacity, separate hard core offenders from other prisoners, hire more guards and improve medical treatment. 

According to the University of Texas’ “Texas Politics Project,” Judge Justice exercised strong oversight of the prison system until 1994 to ensure state compliance. He maintained more limited oversight through 2003.

Lawsuits against a prison don’t always end in an inmate’s favor. But, they can make a difference by shining a light on what’s going inside some of our correctional facilities. Just like the case of ADX -Florence, a SuperMax prison in Colorado. 

If you don’t know what they were doing to inmates there, check out this piece from The Marshall Project titled How America’s Most Famous Federal Prison Faced a Dirty Secret.

Do you think inmates should have more rights behind bars? Or, do they get “what they deserve”? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.


Do prisoners have civil rights? Can they successfully sue for violations?

The Texas Politics Project -- Cruel and unusual punishment: Ruiz

An American Gulag: Descending into Madness at Supermax

How America’s Most Famous Federal Prison Faced a Dirty Secret
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