What Is the Hands-Off Doctrine?

The "Hands-Off Doctrine" refers to the historical trend for United States federal courts to not interfere with or extend rights to incarcerated people, according to Michael Goldman in a Boston College article. This policy was practiced officially from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.

US Legal describes the "Hands-Off Doctrine" as a practice or non-interference with prisoners based on the belief that prisoners did not deserve the rights afforded to other citizens. Judges of the 1800s maintained that by breaking laws that led to their incarceration, prisoners had given up their claim to the protection of the courts.

In his article, "Prisoner Rights," Dr. Thomas O'Connor of the Institute for Global Security Studies states that the "Hands-Off Doctrine" was established in 1866 in the Pervear vs. Massachusetts case, in which the court denied prisoners even their Eighth Amendment rights. In 1872, during the Ruffin vs. Commonwealth case, the court affirmed this notion by calling prisoners slaves of the state. According to these precedents, many rights of prisoners were not upheld, until the 1964 decision of Cooper vs. Pate, which reinstated the rights of prisoners to take lawsuits to federal courts.

Although other reforms have occurred that aim to protect prisoner rights, the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 set back the progress, according to the Jailhouse Lawyer's Handbook. The law was put in place to try to bar prisoners from bringing frivolous lawsuits to court.