Do Inmates Have a Right to Privacy?

During the 1960s and the 1970s, courts began to recognize the claim of prisoners that they still retained certain constitutional rights that should be protected even while they are prisoners. Before this, courts maintained a “hands-off” policy, unwilling to interfere in the executive branch’s prerogative to manage jails and other penal institutions. During this time, inmates were considered to have no rights because they were considered to have lost their rights when they committed their crimes.

In these modern times, it is a given that prisoners do still retain certain rights even while kept as a prisoner in jail. These are constitutionally protected rights, such as the right to free speech, the right to freedom of religion, and a right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Prisoners do not, however, have a right to privacy.

This is based on a ruling set down by the Supreme Court in Hudson v. Palmer in 1984, where prisoners were deemed to have no reasonable expectation of privacy that warranted Fourth Amendment protection. The peculiar needs and restrictions of being in prison argued strongly against this. Prisoners are expected to submit to searches and seizures conducted by jail authorities, are essentially always within the observation of the authorities, and even their mail is subject to inspection before delivery to the prisoner-recipient. All these jail regulations are necessary to maintain order and discipline within the jail, and to make sure that no one prisoner is enjoying extra privileges that he would not otherwise have – or else why be in prison in the first place? Obviously, there is no constitutionally protected right to privacy in this instance.