Prisoner Rights & Resources

Welcome to the “Prisoners Rights & Resources” section. This section contains links to a variety of national resources related to corrections and the rights of those incarcerated. To suggest a resource for this list, please contact us.

American Civil Liberties Union
The official Prison Rights website of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the only national litigation program on behalf of prisoners.
Rights of Inmates
A comprehensive overview of the constitutional rights of those incarcerated.
National Legal Aid and Defender Association
A non-profit organization dedicated to representing indigent defendants.
Prison Activist Resource Center
A source for progressive and radical information on prisons and the criminal prosecution system.
Legal Aid Society of New York
Advocating for constitutional and humane conditions of confinement for prisoners in the New York City and State correctional systems.
Prisoners and Prisoners’ Rights
An overview of inmates’ rights, and links to a menu of related resources.
Justice Denied
A magazine devoted to helping people who have been wrongly convicted in the U.S.
Partnership for Safety and Justice
The Partnership for Safety and Justice (formerly The Western Prison Project) publishes a prisoner support directory.
National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
The official website of the only fully-staffed national organization exclusively devoted to abolishing capital punishment.
Stop Prisoner Rape
CLAIM
A Chicago-based organization providing legal and educational services, to help imprisoned mothers preserve their families.
Preventing Prison Rape
Addressing the epidemic in the country’s prison facilities.
Amnesty International
Human Rights Watch
Website of an organization seeking to end the abusive treatment of prisoners.
HIV & Hepatitis Education Prison Project
Concerned with educating and informing on infectious disease in corrections.
National Ass’n of the Deaf – Rights of Deaf Inmates
An overview of rights and remedies for deaf inmates.
The Eighth Amendment
A look at the source of a prisoner’s constitutional rights.
Death Penalty Information Center
A non-profit organization serving the media and the public, with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment.
Books Not Bars
Working to expose and end the over-incarceration of youth
Prisoner Action Coalition
Advocating to improve conditions in California prisons, and assist individual prisoners with legal matters.
Equal Justice, USA
Mobilizing and educating citizens around crime and punishment, including racial, economic, and political biases.
The Other Side of the Wall
A collection of news, articles, and resources related to prisons, prisoners, and the death penalty.
Prison Legal News
An independent publication that reports, reviews, and analyzes court rulings and news related to prisoner rights and prison issues.
Jewish Prisoner Services International
Providing direct spiritual, outreach, and advocacy services for Jewish prisoners and their loved ones.
The Sentencing Project
A national leader in the development of alternative sentencing programs and in research and advocacy on criminal justice policy.
Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (C.U.R.E.)
Nation-wide grass roots organization dedicated to reducing crime through reform of the criminal justice system.
Native American Indian Spiritual Freedom in Prison
Discusses recent cases and provides links to related resources.
Prisoner Advocacy Network
Prisoners and advocates united for human rights.

Getting Arrested Checklist: Have My Rights Been Violated?

Persons accused of committing a crime have a series of rights, some of which are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and some of which are guaranteed for other reasons. If you have been accused of a crime, how can you know if your rights have been violated? While an experienced criminal law attorney can answer that question, the following checklist of rights may also provide you with guidance.

Yes/No
____ I was allowed to remain silent: One of the most important rights of a person accused of a crime is the right to remain silent. You cannot be forced to divulge information to the police. This right stems from the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. In other words, you are not required to prove your case for the police. They are responsible for developing the evidence to prove you have in fact committed a crime. The right to remain silent was confirmed in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Miranda v. Arizona. If you attempted to remain silent in the face of police questioning, and were coerced or forced into speaking, your rights have been violated.
____ I was told that anything I chose to say can be used against me: The police must inform you that if you chose to speak, “anything you do say may be used against you in a court of law.” If you were told that you had the right to remain silent, but were not informed of the consequences of choosing to speak, your rights may have been violated.
____ I was allowed to have an attorney present when I requested one: Another absolute right of a person under arrest for a crime is the right to have an attorney present during questioning and the right to have counsel during any trial. If you requested an attorney during questioning, and the police denied you that request, your rights may have been violated.
____ I was not asked questions while my attorney was absent: Once you request the assistance of an attorney, the police are prohibited from questioning you later without your attorney. In other words, you have the right to have an attorney present during the first, and any subsequent, talks with the police.
____ I was not forced to pay for my attorney’s services: Just as you are entitled to have an attorney, you are also entitled to a state-paid and appointed attorney if you can not afford your own attorney per a state’s or county’s guidelines. If you fall within this category, you will be assigned a public defender to represent you.
____ Although I initially didn’t ask for an attorney, when I asked for one later in my questioning, questioning stopped and didn’t start again until my attorney arrived: In many situations, criminal suspects may have false confidence that they can handle the matter on their own, without the assistance of an attorney. A criminal suspect who decides to answer police questions without an attorney present still has the right to ask for an attorney at any later point. Once a suspect asks for an attorney, all questioning must stop until the attorney arrives.
____ I was treated humanely: Unfortunately, police brutality and unfair treatment continue to occur in the United States. A criminal suspect is entitled to humane treatment, no matter how heinous the alleged crime. If you were not treated humanely, for instance if you were deprived of food and water or if you were beaten either during police questioning or while in a holding cell, your rights may have been violated.
____ I was not held unfairly: The government cannot hold you for an extended period of time without charging you with a crime. For instance, if you are placed in a holding cell under suspicion of murder, the government must officially charge you with that crime within a specified period of time. In some states, a charge must be brought within forty-eight hours; in other states the time limit is different. If you have been held without being charged for longer than the legal amount of time, your rights may have been violated.
____ I was not treated as guilty before convicted: Criminal suspects being held in jail awaiting trial may not be treated as guilty individuals before they have actually been convicted, no matter how strong the evidence is against them. The cornerstone of the U.S. criminal justice system is the belief that all people are innocent until proven guilty. If you were punished or treated unfairly while awaiting trial, your rights may have been violated.
____ I was given a speedy trial: You are also entitled to what is called a “speedy trial.” In other words, once you are charged the government cannot purposefully drag its feet and wait to commence a trial against you. If it does, your rights may have been violated.
____ I was not subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment” while imprisoned: The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that prisoners must be free from “cruel and unusual punishment.” Once you have been convicted of a crime and incarcerated, you must be treated in a manner that does not constitute “cruel and unusual” punishment. Therefore, any punishment that can be considered inhumane treatment or which violates the basic concept of a person?s dignity may be found to be cruel and unusual. For example, your rights may have been violated if you were given only dirty water to drink while incarcerated, or if the condition of your cell was unsanitary.

Civil Rights and Discrimination: U.S. Supreme Court Decisions

Following is a list of U.S. Supreme Court decisions involving civil rights and discrimination.

  • Dred Scott v. Sanford (1856) | (Case Background)
    A major precursor to the Civil War, this controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision denied citizenship and basic rights to all blacks — whether slave or free.
  • Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
    This decision allowed the use of “separate but equal” racially segregated accommodations and facilities.
  • Korematsu v. U.S. (1944)
    The Court in this case upheld the conviction of an American of Japanese descent, who had been prosecuted for remaining in California after a 1942 presidential order designating much of the west coast a “military area”, and requiring relocation of most Japanese-Americans from California (among other west coast states)
  • Shelley v. Kraemer (1948)
    This decision held that “racially restrictive covenants” in property deeds are unenforceable. In this case, the “covenants” were terms or obligations in property deeds that limited property rights to Caucasians, excluding members of other races.
  • Bailey v. Patterson (1962)
    The Court in this case prohibited racial segregation of interstate and intrastate transportation facilities.
  • Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)
    In this case, the Court found that criminal defense attorneys must be provided for indigent criminal defendants.
  • Loving v. Virginia (1967)
    This decision holds that state laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage are unconstitutional.
  • Jones v. Mayer Co. (1968)
    The Court held in this case that federal law bars all racial discrimination (private or public), in sale or rental of property.
  • Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971)
    In this case, the Court decided that certain education requirements and intelligence tests used as conditions of employment acted to exclude African-American job applicants, did not relate to job performance, and were prohibited.
  • Lau v. Nichols (1973)
    The Court found that a city school system’s failure to provide English language instruction to students of Chinese ancestry amounted to unlawful discrimination.
  • Roe v. Wade (1973)
    In this landmark case, the Court decided that a woman’s right to abortion is part of the constitutional right to privacy.
  • Cleveland Bd. of Ed. v. LaFleur (1974)
    Found that Ohio public school mandatory maternity leave rules for pregnant teachers violate constitutional guarantees of due process.
  • Batson v. Kentucky (1986)
    This decision holds that a state denies an African-American defendant equal protection when it puts him on trial before a jury from which members of his race have been purposefully excluded.
  • Bowers v. Hardwick (1986)
    The Court holds that a Georgia statute criminalizing same-sex sodomy is constitutional.
  • Johnson v. Transportation Agency (1987)
    The Court decides that a county transportation agency appropriately took into account an employee’s sex as one factor in determining whether she should be promoted.
  • Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Serv., Inc. (1987)
    In this case, the Court held that sex discrimination consisting of same-sex sexual harassment can form the basis for a valid claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools (1992)
    The Court decided that an award of money damages is possible in a case brought to enforce Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, alleging sexual harassment and abuse by a teacher.
  • Romer v. Evans (1996)
    In this case, the Court finds that an amendment to Colorado’s constitution, which sought to preclude legal protection of homosexuals’ rights, is unconstitutional.
  • Bragdon v. Abbott (1998)
    The Court holds that HIV infection qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth (1998)
    Holding that an employee who refuses unwelcome and threatening sexual advances of a supervisor (but suffers no real job consequences) may recover against the employer without showing the employer is at fault for the supervisor’s actions.
  • Faragher v. City of Boca Raton (1998)
    The Court decides that an employer may be liable for sexual discrimination caused by a supervisor, but liability depends on the reasonableness of the employer’s conduct, as well as the reasonableness of the plaintiff victim’s conduct.
  • Murphy v. United Parcel Service, Inc. (1999)
    In this case, the Court explains how to determine whether an impairment “substantially limits” a major life activity under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Lawrence v. Texas (2003)
    The Court holds that a Texas statute criminalizing same-sex conduct is unconstitutional.
  • Grutter v. Bollinger (2003)
    In this case, the Court finds that a law school’s limited “affirmative action” use of race in admissions is constitutional.

What is Discrimination?

In plain English, to “discriminate” means to distinguish, single out, or make a distinction. In everyday life, when faced with more than one option, we discriminate in arriving at almost every decision we make. But in the context of civil rights law, unlawful discrimination refers to unfair or unequal treatment of an individual (or group) based on certain characteristics, including:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Marital status
  • National origin
  • Race,
  • Religion, and
  • Sexual orientation.

Lawful vs. Unlawful Discrimination

Not all types of discrimination will violate federal and/or state laws that prohibit discrimination. Some types of unequal treatment are perfectly legal, and cannot form the basis for a civil rights case alleging discrimination. The examples below illustrate the difference between lawful and unlawful discrimination.

Example 1: Applicant 1, an owner of two dogs, fills out an application to lease an apartment from Landlord. Upon learning that Applicant 1 is a dog owner, Landlord refuses to lease the apartment to her, because he does not want dogs in his building. Here, Landlord has not committed a civil rights violation by discriminating against Applicant 1 based solely on her status as a pet owner. Landlord is free to reject apartment applicants who own pets.

Example 2: Applicant 2, an African-American man, fills out an application to lease an apartment from Landlord. Upon learning that Applicant 2 is an African-American, Landlord refuses to lease the apartment to him, because he prefers to have Caucasian tenants in his building. Here, Landlord has committed a civil rights violation by discriminating against Applicant 2 based solely on his race. Under federal and state fair housing and anti-discrimination laws, Landlord may not reject apartment applicants because of their race.

Where Can Discrimination Occur?

Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination against members of protected groups (identified above) in a number of settings, including:

  • Education
  • Employment
  • Housing
  • Government benefits and services
  • Health care services
  • Land use / zoning
  • Lending and credit
  • Public accommodations (Access to buildings and businesses)
  • Transportation
  • Voting

Anti-Discrimination Laws

Most laws prohibiting discrimination, and many legal definitions of “discriminatory” acts, originated at the federal level through either:

  • Federal legislation, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992. Other federal acts (supplemented by court decisions) prohibit discrimination in voting rights, housing, extension of credit, public education, and access to public facilities.

OR

  • Federal court decisions, like the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which was the impetus for nationwide racial desegregation of public schools. Other Supreme Court cases have shaped the definition of discriminatory acts like sexual harassment, and the legality of anti-discrimination remedies such as affirmative action programs.

Today, most states have anti-discrimination laws of their own which mirror those at the federal level. For example, in the state of Texas, Title 2 Chapter 21 of the Labor Code prohibits employment discrimination. Many of the mandates in this Texas law are based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law making employment discrimination unlawful.

Municipalities within states (such as cities, counties, and towns) can create their own anti-discrimination laws or ordinances, which may or may not resemble the laws of the state itself. For example, a city may pass legislation requiring domestic partner benefits for city employees and their same-sex partners, even though no such law exists at the state level.

Discrimination: Getting a Lawyer’s Help

If you believe you have suffered a civil rights violation such as discrimination, the best place to start is to speak with an experienced Discrimination Attorney. Important decisions related to your case can be complicated — including which laws apply to your situation, and who is responsible for the discrimination and any harm you suffered. A Discrimination Attorney will evaluate all aspects of your case and explain all options available to you, in order to ensure the best possible outcome for your case.

Police Misconduct and Civil Rights

Police officers generally have broad powers to carry out their duties. The Constitution and other laws, however, place limits on how far police can go in trying to enforce the law. As the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King, in Los Angeles and several recent cases in New York have illustrated, police officers sometimes go too far, violating the rights of citizens. When this happens, the victim of the misconduct may have recourse through federal and state laws. A primary purpose of the nation’s civil rights laws is to protect citizens from abuses by government, including police misconduct. Civil rights laws allow attorney fees and compensatory and punitive damages as incentives for injured parties to enforce their rights.

Overcoming Immunity

Being stopped and questioned by police in connection with a crime is an unsettling experience for most anyone. As long as the officer is performing his job properly, however, there is no violation of a suspect’s rights. In fact, police are immune from suit for the performance of their jobs unless willful, unreasonable conduct is demonstrated. Mere negligence, the failure to exercise due care, is not enough to create liability. Immunity therefore means that in the typical police-suspect interaction, the suspect cannot sue the police. Civil rights remedies come into play for willful police conduct that violates an individual’s constitutional rights.

Civil Rights Laws and Police Misconduct

A statute known as Section 1983 is the primary civil rights law victims of police misconduct rely upon. This law was originally passed as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which was intended to curb oppressive conduct by government and private individuals participating in vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan. It is now called Section 1983 because that is where the law has been published, within Title 42, of the United States Code. Section 1983 makes it unlawful for anyone acting under the authority of state law to deprive another person of his or her rights under the Constitution or federal law. The most common claims brought against police officers are false arrest (or false imprisonment), malicious prosecution, and use of excessive or unreasonable force.

False Arrest
The claim that is most often asserted against police is false arrest. Persons bringing this claim assert that police violated their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure. If the officer had probable cause to believe the individual had committed a crime, the arrest is reasonable and the Fourth Amendment has not been violated. Police can arrest without a warrant for a felony or misdemeanor committed in their presence. (Some states also allow warrantless arrests for misdemeanor domestic assaults not committed in the officer’s presence.) Even if the information the officer relied upon later turns out to be false, the officer is not liable if he believed it was accurate at the time of the arrest. To prevail on a false arrest claim, the victim must show that the arresting officer lacked probable cause, that is, facts sufficient to cause a reasonable person to believe that a crime had been committed.

Malicious Prosecution
A malicious prosecution claim asserts that the officer wrongly deprived the victim of the Fourteenth Amendment right to liberty. To win this type of claim, the victim must show four things: 1) the defendant police officer commenced a criminal proceeding; 2) the proceeding ended in the victim’s favor (that is, no conviction); 3) there was no probable cause; and 4) the proceeding was brought with malice toward the victim. As with false arrest, this claim will fail if the officer had probable cause to initiate criminal proceedings.

Excessive Force
Excessive force claims receive the most publicity, perhaps because the results of excessive force seem the most outrageous, involving serious physical injury or death. Whether the officer’s use of force was reasonable depends on the surrounding facts and circumstances. The officer’s intentions or motivations are not controlling. If the amount of force was reasonable, it doesn’t matter that the officer’s intentions were bad. But the reverse is also true: if the officer had good intentions, but used unreasonable force, the excessive force claim will not be dismissed.

Failure to Intervene
Officers have a duty to protect individuals from constitutional violations by fellow officers. Therefore, an officer who witnesses a fellow officer violating an individual’s constitutional rights may be liable to the victim for failing to intervene.

The Qualified Immunity Defense

Defense attorneys representing a police officer for any of these claims will raise a defense of qualified immunity. This defense exists to prevent the fear of legal prosecution from inhibiting a police officer from enforcing the law. The defense will defeat a claim against the officer if the officer’s conduct did not violate a clearly established constitutional or statutory right. In other words, the specific acts the officer prevented the individual from engaging in must be legally protected, otherwise there is no civil rights violation. In order to win a civil rights claim, an individual bringing a police misconduct claim must prove that the actions of the police exceeded reasonable bounds, infringed the victim’s constitutional rights, and produced some injury or damages to the victim.

Police Misconduct: If You’ve Been Affected

Civil rights claims are an important part of our legal system, providing a balance between the duty of law enforcement to uphold the laws, and the rights of individuals to be free from police misconduct. Yet cases against police officers can be difficult. Officers may be immune from suit, even though an individual feels he or she was mistreated. Claims against police departments can also be expensive to bring because a lot of evidence must be secured, including records, statements of police, statements of witnesses, and various other documentation, to prove the misconduct.

The evidence supporting your claim is the most important element in a police misconduct suit. If you feel you’ve been the victim of police misconduct, contact a Civil Rights Attorney promptly so that valuable evidence does not disappear. Take photographs of any injuries or damage caused by the police, and set aside clothing or other objects that was torn or stained with blood from the incident. Try to get the names and addresses or telephone numbers of anyone who may have witnessed the incident. Also, write down exactly what happened as soon as you can, so that you don’t forget important details.

Government Prosecution of Criminal Civil Rights Violations Q&A

Q. What are the differences between a civil and a criminal civil rights violation?

A. A criminal violation requires the use or threat of force. Other distinctions between criminal and civil cases brought by the government are:

CRIMINAL CIVIL
Who is charged: Accused person Usually an organization
Standard of proof: Beyond a reasonable doubt Preponderance of evidence
Fact finder: Jury Judge
Victim: Identified individuals Individuals and/or representatives of a group or class
Remedy sought: Prison, fine, restitution, community service Correct policies and practices, relief for individuals
Govt’s right to appeal: Very limited Yes

Criminal cases are investigated and prosecuted differently from civil cases. More and stronger evidence is needed to obtain a criminal conviction than to win a civil suit. Should the defendant be acquitted, the government has no right of appeal. A federal criminal conviction also requires a unanimous decision by 12 jurors (or by a judge only if the defendant chooses not to have a jury). Civil cases are usually heard by a judge, but occasionally a jury will decide the case. Both criminal and civil cases can be resolved without a trial where both sides agree and with the concurrence of the judge; this is done by a plea agreement in a criminal case and by a consent decree in a civil suit. In criminal cases, judges must use the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in determining the defendant’s punishment, whereas judges in civil suits may or may not adopt remedies as recommended by the government when it wins.

Q. If there is no violence or threat of violence, whom should I contact?

A. If no violence is involved, complaints should be submitted in writing to the Civil Rights Division, where it will be forwarded to the appropriate Section for review. The Division’s mailing address is:

Civil Rights Division
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20530

Q. What do I do when my civil rights have been violated, and can I make a complaint on behalf of someone else? Must it be in writing?

A. Individuals may report possible violations on their own or on behalf of others if they have sufficient first-hand information about the incident. The information provided should include names of the victim(s), any witnesses, and the perpetrators (if known), a description of the events, and whether any physical injuries or physical damage were incurred. Complaints in writing are preferred, but there may be circumstances when a telephone complaint is appropriate (especially if there is an immediate danger). The “blue pages” of your local telephone book should have the phone numbers and addresses for the agencies shown below.

Hate crimes:

  • Local FBI field office or
  • Local police department

Health care access interference:

  • Local FBI field office [phone threats]
  • Local ATF (Treasury) [bombing or arson]

Involuntary servitude or migrant worker exploitation:

  • Local FBI field office or
  • Trafficking in Persons and Worker Exploitation Task Force — 1-888-428-7581 (weekdays 9 AM – 5 PM EST) — [available in 100 languages during work hours and English, Spanish, Russian, and Mandarin after hours]

Housing interference:

  • Local FBI field office and/or
  • Local HUD office

Official misconduct:

  • Local FBI field office

Religious interference or property damage:

  • Local FBI field office

If you are unable to locate the appropriate office listed above, please send the complaint in writing directly to the Criminal Section at the following address:

Criminal Section
Civil Rights Division
U.S. Department of Justice
P.O. Box 66018
Washington, D.C. 20035-6018

Q. Is there a cost involved in making a complaint?

A. There is NO FEE required to file a complaint.

Q. What help can I receive if I am a victim whose civil rights have been violated?

A. During the course of a federal criminal civil rights investigation, the victim may be eligible to receive compensation and other assistance provided through various local government and private agencies. Each state has eligibility requirements for receiving compensation, usually requiring that the victim promptly report the incident and cooperate with the police and prosecutors. In general, victims may be compensated for medical and mental health treatment, funerals, lost wages, and crime scene clean-up.

These programs have been established in every state and receive federal grants from a fund consisting of fines paid by convicted defendants nationwide.

Q. Can a victim receive monetary compensation as the result of a criminal case?

A. If a defendant is convicted as the result of a federal criminal civil rights prosecution, the government will ask the court to order restitution to be paid to the victim where it is permitted by law and appropriate to the facts of the case.

Q. Will the federal government represent me in a lawsuit against the defendant?

A. The United States government cannot represent a victim in a civil suit arising out of a criminal civil rights violation. Victims may contact a private attorney to pursue a civil action even if there has been a federal prosecution for the same incident.

Q. Do all federal criminal civil rights violations require racial, religious, or ethnic hatred? If not, what does “color of law” mean?

A. Official misconduct and slavery cases (such as police beatings and migrant worker exploitation) do NOT require that the law enforcement officer or exploiter have acted out of hatred for the victim because of the victim’s race, national origin, color, or religion. However, there are several laws that do require that the unlawful acts be based upon such a discriminatory motivation. These include housing and religious interference or acts intended to prevent an individual from enjoying certain federal rights (voting, employment, use of public facilities or access to health care [gender]).

“Color of law” is a legal term used in official misconduct cases. It means that the law enforcement officer acted while abusing the authority given to him or her by reason of his or her employment as a public official.

Criminal Civil Rights Enforcement and Hate Crimes: History and the Law

Federal criminal civil rights laws prohibit certain hate crimes based on race, color or national origin, prohibit police brutality, prohibit church burnings, violence against health care providers, and the transport of persons, particularly women and children, for the purpose of enslavement or forced labor.

In June, 1964, 3 young men were working in Mississippi to help African-Americans obtain their civil rights in voting, education and employment. The 3 young men were named Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. On June 21, 1964, the young men visited a church that had been fire bombed near Philadelphia, Mississippi. After leaving the site of the church bombing, the young men were arrested by members of the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Department for speeding. Later that night, they disappeared.

Within a few days of the disappearance, the FBI began an investigation, and members of the U.S. Department of Justice‘s Civil Rights Division visited Mississippi to learn what facts were available about their disappearance. On August 4, 1964, a paid informant of the FBI revealed the location of the bodies of the 3 young civil rights workers. They had been shot, and James Chaney, an African-American, had been severely beaten. In December, 1964, 19 white men, including the sheriff and his deputy, were arrested on state conspiracy charges, but the charges were later dropped. In 1967, after a federal prosecution for conspiracy to deny the young men’s civil rights, 7 white men were convicted.

A case in March 1991 involved the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, California,. After the police officers who allegedly beat Mr. King were acquitted in a state court trial, terrible riots broke out in South Central Los Angeles in protest. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and United States Attorney then prosecuted the officers under a federal criminal civil rights statute. The officers were convicted of violating Mr. King’s civil rights.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division also enforces federal criminal civil rights laws that involve “hate crimes.” Hate crimes are crimes committed against individuals or institutions because of their race, ethnic background or religion. Other federal laws prohibit church burnings. In 1996, a string of church arsons, especially in a large number of African-American churches, led President Bill Clinton to form a special task force, known as the National Church Arson Task Force, made up of lawyers from the Civil Rights Division, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This Task Force was assigned to investigate and prosecute these church arsons under the federal criminal civil rights statutes. In their report to the President in June 1997, the Task Force reported convictions of 110 individuals in connection with 77 fires at houses of worship. The President also sought and worked with Congress to improve the law that prohibits church arsons.