Civil Rights

Zack, a transgender man, filed a lawsuit against the Philidelphia Department of Prisons (PDP) after his experience at Riverside Correctional Facility, the city’s only female jail. The Philadelphia Department of prisons recently settled the lawsuit, stating that it was “in the best interests of the city.”

After Zack’s case exposed issues within the PDP, the department issued new directives to align with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). However, policymakers say that the city still must significantly improve training for correctional officers regarding the treatment of transgender inmates.

Zack was 31years old when he was booked at the Riverside Correctional Facility in 2016. While he was in prison, he endured discriminatory treatment from the facility’s correctional officers. Zack states he was humiliated in many ways. Officers verbally harassed him about his beard in front of other inmates. Zack was denied a pair of shoes after he requested to be referred to as a man.

A contracted prison nurse sexually assaulted him by performing an invasive gynecological examination. Prison managers requested the examination to determine whether he was a man or a woman. Invasive searches of an inmate’s genitalia intended only to determine the inmate’s identity is a violation of prison policy and federal law. A correctional officer aggressively sprayed Zack with pepper spray for over 30 seconds even though he posed no threat to nearby staff.

Statistics show Riverside Correctional Facility utilizes pepper spray far more frequently than other prisons in the city. In 2018, Riverside averaged 466 prisoners a day and reported the use of pepper spray on prisoners 124 times. Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, the largest male jail in Philadelphia, had a daily population of 2,140 prisoners in 2018. Staff reported the use of pepper spray only 252 times during the year.

Zack filed numerous internal complaints regarding his treatment at Riverside to no avail. In fact, a shift commander asked Zack to stop filing grievances. He was also presented with and asked to sign a statement clearing the correctional officers of any wrongdoing. When he refused, he was punished with 15 days in solitary confinement.

Prisoners and those accused or being investigated of crimes have rights, just as anyone else does. However, officers and prison guards often abuse inmates’ rights. If you have been involved in the criminal justice system and had your rights abused, you should contact a civil rights lawyer. An attorney experienced in civil rights laws will be able to explain the legal options available to you.

What Are Civil Rights?

The Legal Information Institute explains that civil rights are legally enforceable rights or privileges. Interference with your civil rights or privileges gives rise to legal action for damages. Discrimination refers to actions that take away or interfere with a person’s civil rights. Civil rights were created by the U.S. Constitution. Subsequent state and federal laws include additional civil rights. Some civil rights created by law include:

  • The right to vote
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of religion
  • The right to peacefully protest
  • Protection against discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability, age, sex, or religion
  • Freedom of the press

U.S. citizens have specific rights during police stops, police investigations, and arrests. Those rights include:

  • The right to remain silent if being interrogated. You must verbally enforce your right to remain silent.
  • The right to refuse a search of your home, belongings, or person. Nonetheless, improper searches may still take place. Verbally objecting to this violation of your rights is important for future legal proceedings. If police are at your door asking to come in, you have the right to ask to see their identification. You may refuse an officer’s entry unless they have a specific warrant signed by a judge. Police may only search for the items that are listed in the warrant.
  • If you are arrested, you have the right to speak to a lawyer. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you. Again, you must verbally assert your right to speak to a lawyer.
  • If you are arrested, you have the right to make one phone call. Police cannot listen to or record calls made to your lawyer.

Do Prisoners Have Civil Rights?

Yes, prisoners are afforded civil rights even while incarcerated. However, many states remove the voting rights of those who have been convicted of certain felonies. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lists the following civil rights pertaining to inmates:

  • Protection from excessive force or abuse. The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects prisoners from the use of excessive force by prison officials. Officials are also required to protect prisoners from abuse by other prisoners. The use of force is allowed when necessary to maintain good order among the prison population. However, officers are prohibited from using force maliciously or sadistically.
  • Protection of the right to exercise your religious freedoms. Unless there is a compelling governmental interest, prison officials may not prohibit you from religious exercise. A compelling government interest may include preserving the safety and health of yourself or other prisoners. Additionally, there must be no other way to protect that interest. Prison officials may be required to accommodate religious dietary restrictions and provide a time and location for worship services. Also, they must allow religious literature, clothing, and grooming practices. Prison officials are prohibited from imposing their own religious beliefs on inmates. Officials may not show a preference for prisoners of a certain religious faith. Also, inmates cannot be punished for refusing to take part in religious activities.
  • Protection if you’re transgender. Federal laws require prison officials with knowledge of your transgender status, to protect you from abuse. Prisons and jails are required to make individualized housing arrangements for prisoners who are transgender. While some prison systems choose to place prisoners who are transgender in solitary confinement for their own protection. However, you cannot be segregated in solitary confinement against your will for more than thirty days. You must be granted access to programs, privileges, education, and work opportunities. It is a violation of your civil rights to prevent hormone therapy or gender reassignment surgery while in prison. Strip searches must be conducted professionally and out of view of other prisoners. Inmates cannot be ordered to strip or subjected to pat-down procedures solely for the purpose of groping your genitals. A request for a private shower must be granted in accordance with PREA standards.
  • The right to make decisions regarding pregnancy. Pregnant prisoners must be granted the right to choose whether to have an abortion. Pregnant prisoners have a right to prenatal and postpartum care. You also have the right to obtain or refuse sterilization or birth control after your pregnancy.
  • Protection from discrimination due to disability. If you are disabled, you have the right to participate in programs and activities made accessible to other prisoners. Deaf inmates must be provided a sign language interpreter at all disciplinary hearings, medical appointments, and educational and vocational programs. If you require a cane or a wheelchair for mobility, the prison must provide you with one. You cannot be placed in solitary confinement due to a lack of handicap accessible cells in general population. Additionally, you may not be denied boarding with the general population because of perceived vulnerability due to your disabled status.
  • You have the right to receive books, magazines, and newspapers by mail. The materials must not jeopardize the safety and security of the facility. Prisons may ban publications that feature nudity or that offer instruction for making weapons. Your family members may purchase magazine or news subscriptions for inmates. Inmates and the sender both have the right to be notified if a specific publication is prohibited.
  • You have the right to send and receive mail in accordance with the First Amendment of the Constitution. However, mail received or sent from the facility may be inspected to ensure the safety of the population. Communication from attorneys or legal groups is considered privileged mail. Privileged communication is more protection than mail from friends and relatives. Prison staff may inspect incoming privileged mail for contraband, but can only do so in your presence. Outgoing privileged mail can only be inspected with a warrant. If your mail is censored, you and the sender must receive a notice stating the reason for censorship. Additionally, you must be given the opportunity to challenge the decision.

Regional Examples of Civil Rights Abuses

  • In November of 2019, a Philadelphia judge admonished Philadelphia Police Sergeant Jason Reid after repeated complaints. The grievances alleged that he punched citizens in the head. A citizen, Ronald Wallace was punched by Sergeant Reid and subsequently arrested for shouting threats and resisting. The court held that Sergeant Reid’s actions were “outrageous government conduct.” The actions made it impossible for Wallace or any other defendant to get a fair trial. Wallace was arrested in June after police were summoned to a report of a dispute between him and his neighbor. Video of the incident shows the police officer punching him more than once, leaving him bloodied. An assistant public defender stated that Sergeant Reid has a history of using inappropriate force. He also had a history of manufacturing reasons to justify the force he used. The police department recently honored Sergeant Reid with a medal of bravery in another case that involved the use of force. In that case, Sergeant Reid and another officer shot a fleeing suspect. Because the officers were not cleared to testify, the charges, in that case, were dismissed. Reid has reportedly discharged his service weapon four additional times over the course of his career. One instance resulting in an individual’s death, and the other four causing injuries. Internal investigations cleared him of any wrongdoing in all such cases.
  • A former Millville, New Jersey, police officer pled guilty to assault after breaking a woman’s ribs during a DUI arrest in 2018. In a separate incident, the same officer pepper-sprayed another woman after he threw her to the ground. The officer’s arrests were intended to reflect efforts to ensure that officers are held accountable for using excessive force. The attorney general stated that the officer’s actions were traumatic to both his victims and fellow officers. The majority of law enforcement officials are working hard to secure the trust of the communities they serve.
  • The Pennsylvania Prison Society is a group that advocates for the humane treatment of prisoners throughout the state. In a recent editorial, representatives questioned the reported causes of prisoner deaths. The editorial pointed to the alarming number of prisoner deaths that were ruled as either suicides or natural causes. Particularly suspect was the death of a 21-year-old prisoner determined to be of natural causes. The decedent’s body was covered in bruises. The organization is gathering data in cases with suspicious causes of death. The group is also questioning the increase in the state’s prison population. The prison population has increased by 850 percent over the past 40 years. The county jail populations increased by 450 percent during the same time. The group reports that black and Hispanic men are over-represented in the state’s jails and prisons. They assert the “over-policing” of minority communities as a reason for the rapid growth of incarcerated individuals. The group feels that the state’s criminal code needs to be modified. Additional efforts should be made to rehabilitate offenders, so they can meaningfully contribute to society. Simply locking prisoners away at a cost of about $42,000 per prisoner per year is not the answer.

The Zeiger Firm: Protecting Your Rights

If you feel that a police officer or prison guard violated your civil rights, speak with an attorney at the Zeiger Firm. Consulting our experienced civil rights lawyers can provide powerful assistance in making your voice heard through the courts and federal and state agencies. For more information or to schedule a consultation, contact us online or phone us at (215) 546-0340.

Brian J. Zeiger, Esq.