Chelsea Manning is due to be released from prison this month, thanks to Mr. Obama’s commutation of her sentence right before he left office. She announced that she was transgender while in custody, and – for the first time in a military prison – she went through hormone therapy and last fall the Army even allowed her to have gender transition surgery. Thus, even though she is in prison, it seems pretty lucky that Chelsea was able to have her treatment, free of charge, through the prison system. It caused an interesting question – what are the actual rights of prisoners?
Of course, prisoners are entitled to basic human rights such as the right to basic health care, freedom from torture, food, water, and even the ability to practice religion – at least ostensibly. In reality, a lot of these activities are curtailed in prison in the United States, often resulting in last mental trauma, which can make it more dangerous to release a prisoner sent to jail for ‘rehabilitation.’ And it’s no wonder that basic human rights are often sacrificed with impunity: according to the ACLU, the US is the only democracy in the world without an independent authority to monitor the conditions within prison, and enforce minimal standards of health and safety.
Stories are quite common about disabled prisoners – both mental and physical – being denied their medication, or confined to the infirmary, alone for up to 23 hours a day. Some are completely denied any physical therapy after operations that stem from being in prison. Many prisons are older and not able to accommodate those in wheelchairs or requiring other accommodation. This all adds up to a deprivation of rights.
Of course, rights that people get as a result of being a US citizen are often curtailed for prisoners. American citizens are barred from voting if imprisoned. Twelve states actually implemented a law removing the right to vote permanently for ex-felons, and other states have restrictions for two or more years after their release. To compare, other democracies, like Belgium and Israel allow prisoners to vote in any election, regardless of their status.
Visitation by friends and family is another right that, while usually ostensibly granted, in reality very often cannot be fulfilled. Prisons are often located far away from major cities, or in federal crimes, even in entirely different states. This makes it a huge burden for family members to come and visit, both in terms of time and money. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice found that over half of prisoners were not visited by their own children since going to prison. Only 3-5% of marital relationships survive after one year of imprisonment as well. Of course, the prisoners can always use the phone system to keep in touch, right? Unfortunately, most phone calls to and from prisons are done ‘collect,’ with the person receiving the call paying the fee. And most prison calls have exorbitant prices – sometimes dollars a minute – and poor families might block or miss calls from their imprisoned relatives.
Other countries, whose focus is on rehabilitation and the long-view that prisoners must be returned to society, allow their prisoners a weekend vacation or home visit, unless there are significant security concerns. Of course, in the U.S., release from prison is incredibly rare, with the only exceptions usually reserved for funerals.
And finally, once the prisoner is released, if they were convicted of a felony, finding a job in the real world is daunting. Most states refuse employment for felons in fields of law, medicine, education and real estate. Other states prohibit ex-prisoners from handling money (so working as a cashier or bank teller). Of course, felons are barred permanently from carrying or owning guns as well. Prisoners usually are faced with low-skilled, low-paying jobs, which tends to impose a cycle of poverty (and crime) on them.
Prisoners do not simply lose their right to privileges and liberty when they are incarcerated. Their time in prison, no matter how short, can have significant effects for the rest of their lives. There are arguments for and against this situation, but it is admittedly a hard sell for someone who has served 5 years for a non-violent drug offense to be stripped of his basic rights of citizenship, lose viable employment opportunities, and be at risk for future criminal acts.