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Prisoners' Rights and the Rehnquist Court Era

NCJ Number
The Prison Journal Volume: 87 Issue: 4 Dated: December 2007 Pages: 457-476
Christopher E. Smith
Date Published
December 2007
20 pages
This article addresses the issues of prisoners’ rights by defining and analyzing important themes and developments in the Rehnquist Court’s treatment of prisoners’ rights cases.
The Supreme Court’s decisions during the Rehnquist Court era had a significant impact on prisoners’ rights, primarily changing key tests for rights violations in ways that either blocked further expansion of rights or resulted in a reduction of existing rights. Of particular importance in this regard were the Supreme Court’s decisions in Wilson v. Seiter (1991; deliberate indifference test for the eighth amendment conditions of confinement), Turner v. Safley (1987; deferential rational basis test for a variety of rights), and Lewis v. Casey (1996; strict standing requirements and barriers to judicially ordered remedies for access-to-the-courts claims). This trend occurred as prison populations rose and hundreds of thousands of additional offenders were affected by conditions of confinement and other rights-related aspects of corrections. Congress complemented and enhanced the Rehnquist Court’s judicial reduction of legal protections for convicted offenders by imposing additional barriers to prisoners’ petitions and limiting judges’ authority to order remedies for certain rights violations. In the broad history of corrections law, the Rehnquist Court era will be noted as a period in which the Supreme Court firmly halted the expansion of constitutional rights for offenders. Substantive legal analysis reveals that the Rehnquist Court produced important decisions establishing new analytical tests that helped to guide lower court decisions and counteracted previous expansions of prisoners’ rights. References