Prisoner's Rights Movement
Up until this point, American legal history includes a few prisoner cases, but they are rare. A federal court applied the cruel and unusual clause of the Eighth Amendment to a prison environment for the first time in 1949. During the 1960s, prisoners began to use the ideas and language of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements to demand their constitutional rights.
This era marks the rise of a prisoners' rights movement, and courts respond by accepting cases and legally mandating institutional norms and minimum standards. The judicial branch abandons its earlier "hands off" doctrine, limiting the power of administrators for the first time. The Nation of Islam, or Black Muslims, whose attempts to practice religion on the inside have continually been thwarted, gains full religious freedom, from the right to hold religious meetings to obtaining copies of the Koran. This seminal victory helps pave the way for further federal cases. Prisoners win rights with regard to health care, sanitation, food, and due process for internal disciplinary practices. Certain restrictions on mail and reading materials are set aside. Inmates are allowed to publish books chronicling their experiences: Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver and Soledad Brother by George Jackson become best sellers. Celebrity inmates like Angela Davis and events like the Attica tragedy bring public awareness and support. But the tide turns again by the end of the decade. The prisoners' rights movement slows, and a backlash begins. Within 20 years, many prisons will have returned to pre-movement conditions.