Even if you are in prison, you still have rights. But which rights are those? People often break “rights” down into two categories: human vs civil rights. These rights are different, and their differences matter when it comes to enforcing them.
What are human rights?
Human rights are rights that all people have. You don’t have to do anything to earn them. For example, most people consider the right to life, freedom from slavery and freedom of opinion to be human rights. Everyone should have them, no matter what country you live in.
Human rights are usually decided by international organizations, like the United Nations. The UN created a list of human rights that all countries should obey.
Not everyone agrees about what counts as a human right. The World Health Organization says that health care is a human right. They want all countries to provide things like clean water and health care. But not all countries agree that health care is a right.
What are civil rights?
The difference between human vs civil rights can be significant. Civil rights are rights given to you by being a citizen of a certain country. For example, the right to vote and the right to a fair trial are civil rights.
Throughout history, many people have had to fight for their civil rights. In the U.S., Black Americans were not given the same rights as White Americans, even after slavery ended. The Civil Rights Movement made sure that Black Americans shared those legal rights.
Human rights are important, but civil rights are the ones we can enforce.
That brings us to an important distinction. Human rights are universal, and everyone should have them. They are also theoretical. People and nations aspire to honor all human rights, but they don’t always have to.
But civil rights must be honored. Civil rights come from the Constitution and laws that we can enforce. That’s one reason why there is a lot of overlap between civil and human rights. We can uphold human rights most when they are also civil rights.
Prisons must honor your civil rights.
If you are in prison, you lose some of your rights. For example, you no longer have the right to move around. But it’s important to know that you still have many civil rights that prisons must honor.
Some examples of the civil rights you have, even in prison, include the following:
- Not to be assaulted or to have excessive force used against you
- Practice your religion
- Have or refuse certain medical treatment
- Accommodation for your disability
- Be protected from certain discrimination
- Send and receive mail, including books, magazines and newspapers
Sadly, many prisoners in the United States report that their rights are violated. If this happens to you, there are steps you can take. Every prison should have a process for filing grievances. You can also contact local advocacy organizations, like the ACLU, for support.