Life inside prison is, for the most part, a combination of contradictory ideas and goals; it is an oxymoron. This is especially true concerning the issue of prisoners' rights. For example, the process of incarceration is a punishment designed to deprive lawbreakers of freedom, access to goods and services, heterosexual relations, autonomy, and security (Sykes, 1958). Although imprisonment entails the deprivation of many basic liberties, inmates do not lose all their rights. Despite the fact that prisoners may be lawbreakers, they are still guaranteed certain liberties under the U.S. Constitution, the Civil Rights Act, and international accords such as those suggested by the United Nations (UN) Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders. Thus, the oxymoron of prisoners' rights occurs because imprisonment involves a punishment based on the deprivation of certain liberties (e.g., freedom) that must simultaneously protect other rights (e.g., safeguards against cruel and unusual punishment).
The oxymoron of prisoners' rights is most likely a historical artifact that was generated by an evolution in both society and culture. Emile Durkheim (1933), one of the founding fathers of sociology, studied the transition of primitive cultures to modern societies. Using historical and anthropological evidence, he noted that the law in primitive societies was primarily repressive in nature. According to Durkheim, law in primitive cultures functioned to reinforce social and religious values. He noted that the violation of either written or unwritten laws in primitive societies often resulted in harsh penal sanctions. However, he believed that modern law would transcend the repressive legal codes associated with primitive cultures. In particular, Durkheim predicted that the law in modern societies would primarily be restitutive in nature. That is, he suggested that the restitutive law of modern