Professor at UCI - Department of Criminology, Law & Society

Prison Justice

by Valerie Jenness

Some would say that prisoners forfeited their rights as soon as they violated the rights of others and became destroyers of societal convention. Others maintain that being in jail does not automatically make a person unworthy of certain rights—no matter what they have done.


As with most controversial topics, the issue of prisoner rights has sparked countless debates and studies of both the sociological and scientific bent. One of the front runners in this movement is Valerie Jenness, Professor of the UC Irvine School of Social Ecology, who is considered to be an expert in the field of criminology, law, and society.


How does the law work for lawbreakers?


One of Jenness’ most notable books, co-written with her colleague Kitty Calavita, is entitled Appealing to Justice: Prisoner Grievances, Rights & Carceral Logic. Gathering material involved lengthy interviews and a wealth of formalities for Jenness and her team, but the results were enlightening and informative.


The book explores the thin line between punishing prisoners and violating their rights. Jenness writes that “Prisons are given the task of punishing prisoners, and inmates still have rights. The legal landscape of punishment and the promise of prisoners’ rights in the U.S. separates us from countries like China, Russia and Venezuela. In a civilized society, prisoners have rights. That’s the tension that we explore in this book.”


The majority of inmates found Jenness’ questioning process cathartic because it allowed them to get things on record, whether this was through direct interrogation by Jenness and her team or via the formal grievance process. The grievance process is issued by thousands of inmates each year, but it rarely yields results.


In fact, over 90% of grievances are denied by prison officials. Once denied, a prisoner can do little else. “The grievance process is the only recourse available to them,” Jenness reports. “They can’t bargain or negotiate and are very disadvantaged within the power hierarchy. The prison officials are the defendant, jury and judge.”


However, the inmates didn’t seem to resent this and generally called the system “fair.”  Most of their complaints were centered on sanitary conditions within the prison and limited access to health care services.


Alternative views: Those who steal rights have none


Some feel that prisoners don’t need more rights since they have already been robbed of one of the most fundamental: freedom. Sympathy is limited because it’s “their fault they’re there.” Stronger views accuse prisoners of living too well and draining taxpayer dollars.


One writer, discussing the recent appeal made by criminals in a controversial case in the UK, made the following provoking statement: “Murderers may be redeemable, but certain crimes remain beyond redemption.”


The matter of prisoner’s rights is only a gateway. It propels researches into the field of the death penalty, the legitimacy of life sentences, and scores of other controversial issues. Research is ongoing and will likely continue to build in years to come.