It is critical to have a clear understanding of legal issues in corrections considering it is a high liability business. In terms of understanding how the legal system actually works, it is easiest to think of it as a funnel that starts at the FEDERAL level, and narrows all the way down to AGENCY policy and procedure (why operations are the way they are).



The U.S. Constitution established America’s national government and fundamental laws, and guaranteed certain basic rights for its citizens. It was signed on September 17, 1787, by delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, presided over by George Washington. It is the backbone for all Law that we as Law Enforcement Officers have been entrusted to uphold. Below are the 4 key amendments you should know as a corrections professional; the 1st, 4th, 8th and 14th.


Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The two most common 1st Amendment issues you deal with in corrections are MAIL and RELIGION.


  • Incoming and outgoing mail can and should be searched.
  • If mail is rejected, the inmate and sender have the right to be notified of the rejection.
  • Legal mail must be searched in the presence of the inmate.
  • Abbott v Thornburgh (1989) The courts decided that to reject mail, the facility must prove that the material advocated some type of safety risk or breech in security.


  • Religion is a sensitive subject as well as the most common 1st Amendment issue that arises in jails and prisons.
  • Corrections officials must be reasonable in allowing inmates to practice their faith unless their practice somehow threatens or violates the safety and security of the facility.
  • This means any genuine or sincere belief even if it is not common or required by the tenets of faith.
  • The 4-pronged TURNER TEST is a standard used to balance the inmate’s right and the institutions need for restricting that right. Turner v Safley – 1987
  1. Is there a rational connection between the restriction and the institutions need for the restriction?
  2. Are there alternative means for the inmate to exercise his or her right?
  3. Are there alternatives to the restriction?
  4. What is the impact on correctional officers and inmates to accommodate the right?
  • RLUIPA (Religious Land Use for Institutionalized Persons Act) – This is an act that made it harder to restrict religious practices. It increased the power of the courts to second-guess decisions made for restrictions, requiring that they are “least restrictive”.
  • With religion being the constitutionally sensitive subject that it is, not only should you be reasonable, but document all reasonable efforts made to try and accommodate a need.
  • Reasonable accommodations would include diets, materials and prequalified practitioners.


The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Considering the amount of searching a corrections officer conducts each day, there are some key factors to remember with the 4th Amendment:

  • The 4th Amendment t does not apply to cell searches, unless the search is done solely to harass. Hudson v. Palmer – 1984
  • When it comes to booking and intake, it is assumed by correctional staff that the arresting officer has lawfully detained (seized) the individual. Charging documents such as a warrant, court order or new charge must be present for any corrections officer to legally take an individual into custody.
  • For an arresting officer to confiscate an inmate’s property who has already been booked in to jail, he or she must obtain a warrant to do so.
  • Random urine tests for inmates are seen as reasonable by the courts.
  • You do not need “reasonable suspicion” to conduct a pat/clothed search. The courts have upheld that random pat down searches are reasonable within an institution. Again, the searches must be reasonable and not done solely to harass the inmate.


  • Strip searches do require “reasonable suspicionRCW 10.79.130
  • The Supreme Court has approved strip searches with out a search warrant in the following circumstances:
    • Inmates opportunity to obtain contraband (contact visits, hospital trips, furloughs)
    • Persons being booked on charges defined in RCW 9.94A.030
    • Reasonable suspicion of contraband
    • Drug charges
    • Prior knowledge of incarceration
    • Inmates who are post-conviction status
  • Giles v Ackerman (1984) – This was a case that determined that strip searches are reasonable under the 4th Amendment where the security needs of the local jail outweigh the privacy interests of the arrestees subject to strip searches.
  • In this particular case, a woman (Giles) in Idaho was arrested on a minor traffic violation. She was never frisked by the arresting officer and was taken to Bonneville County Jail. After Giles was unable to post bail, she was booked into the jail; and within compliance of the Jails policy, she was ordered to conduct a strip search. Giles claimed that the officer who searched her violated her 4th Amendment rights. Initially, the held that for an official to strip search a subject, the officials must have a reasonable suspicion that the subject is concealing contraband. However, after a cross motion for summary judgment was considered, the District Court found that the particular strip search did not violate Giles constitutional right, as the official was simply staying in compliance with the jail policy at the time of the search.


  • A strip search falls under all of the following:
    • Witnessing clothing exchange
    • Clothing removal to photograph tattoos
    • Clothing removal for a medical inspection
    • Doesn’t matter what you call it!


Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

This Amendment applies to post conviction status inmates (convicted). While the term “cruel and unusual” is fairly vague, the courts have come up with a test to define what cruel and unusual means according to the following:

  • Shocks the conscious of the court (manifestly and grossly unjust)
  • Violates the evolving standards of decency of a civilized society
  • Punishment that is disproportionate to the offence
  • Involves a wanton and unnecessary infliction of pain

Conditions of confinement cases like overcrowding would fall under the 8th Amendment. If the inmates have not yet been convicted, then the protections would fall under the 14th Amendment.

Examples of conditions of confinement would be:

  • Overcrowding
  • Food / nutrition
  • Sanitation / cleaning
  • Safety / protection

Estelle v. Gamble – 1976 was a critical case under the 8th Amendment that established the term “deliberate indifference”. Deliberate indifference is simply ignoring a situation known to exist. It is a conscious or reckless disregard of the consequences of one’s acts or omissions. Deliberate indifference is relevant in failure to protect cases and cases where inmates complain of not even having basic needs met such as medical care as seen in the Estelle v. Gamble case.

In order for an “institution” to violate the 8th Amendment they must meet 2 factors:

  1. The conditions must be very bad, creating a substantial risk of serious harm by failing to adequately provide inmates with one or more basic human need (food, water, clothing, shelter, hygiene, medical care).
  2. The defendants knew of the serious problems and failed to take any sort of meaningful corrective response. (Deliberate Indifference)

All unusual and unsafe situations should be documented, action should be taken and the on duty supervisor should be notified.

Excessive force cases are also evaluated under the 8th Amendment for sentenced inmates.

Per Hudson v. McMillian, the use of excessive force against a prisoner may constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” even though the inmate does not suffer serious Injury.


Section. 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

This Amendment applies to the deprivation of life, liberty and property without due process of the law. Pre-Trial inmate cases will typically fall under the 14th Amendment. It basically means that a state is required to go through a certain procedure “due process” before depriving an inmate of a right.

The ultimate goal of due process is “FAIRNESS”. BEING REASONABLE.

Protects pre-trial detainees.

The grievance system was a system put in place as an administrative remedy to address inmate concerns.

Providing inmates with a proper grievance process helps the jail administration resolve internal issues before they become a full-blown lawsuit. Inmates must comply with the institutions deadlines and procedural rules.

Proper exhaustion requires compliance with the institution’s deadlines and other procedural rules.

Inmates have the right to have “access to the courts” as well as legal counsel.

When it comes to discipline for inmates, corrections officers must follow a disciplinary process:

  • A hearing in which the inmate has the right to be present.
  • Advance written notice given to the inmate at least 24 hours before the hearing.
  • The opportunity for the inmate to call witnesses and present evidence on his or her own behalf, unless it would be considered hazardous to the institutions safety.
  • Assistance (right to a lawyer)
  • Impartial tribunal
  • A written decision (evidence and reason for the decision)

Involuntary medicating an inmate is another common 14th amendment issue in jails and prisons. Bottom line is that inmates have the right to refuse medical treatment unless it is absolutely necessary and in done in good faith.

Torts claims are civil as opposed to criminal. They are the first step in a legal proceeding that could lead to a civil lawsuit. These arise when there is a violation of:

damaged / missing property

failure to protect the inmate from harm / assault / DEATH

medical malpractice or breaches of other duties of reasonable care that correctional staff may owe inmates or others.

The most common torts in corrections are missing, lost or damaged property.