Over the past three decades, the US judiciary has grown increasingly less receptive to claims by convicted felons about the conditions of their confinement while in prison. Although courts have not articulated a return to the 'hands off' policy of the 1950s, it is clear that it has become significantly more difficult for prisoners to prevail in constitutional correctional litigation. The passage and aggressive implementation ofthe Prison Litigation Reform Act has been a powerful disincentive to such litigation in many areas ofprisoners' rights law.
From the perspective of the prisoner, the legal landscape is more hopeful in matters that relate to mental health care and treatment. Here, in spite of a general trend toward more stringent applications of standards of proof and a reluctance to order sweeping, intrusive remedies, some courts have aggressively protected prisoners’ rights to be free from 'deliberate indifference' to serious medical needs, and to be free from excessive force on the part of prison officials.
A mostly hidden undercurrent in some prisoners' rights litigation has been the effort on the part of some plaintiffs' lawyers to look to international human rights doctrines as a potential source of rights, an effort that has met with some modest success. It gets support by the inclination of other courts to turn to international human rights conventions, even in nations where such conventions have not been ratified, as a kind of 'best practices' in the area.
The recent publication and subsequent ratification (though not, as of yet, by the United States) of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) may add new support to those using international human rights documents as a basis for litigating prisoners' rights claims. To the best of our knowledge, there has, as of yet, been no scholarly literature on the question of the implications of the CRPD on the state of prisoners' rights law in a US domestic context. In this paper, we raise that question, and offer some tentative conclusions.
Behavioral Sciences and the Law Behav: Sci. Law 27: 675-694 (2009)