Hands-off Doctrine Law & Legal Definition


Until the 1960s, the courts did not practically interfere with prison life. The courts adopted a hands-off doctrine towards convicted offenders. Pursuant to the "hands-off" doctrine, the courts were without power to supervise prison administration or interfere with ordinary prison rules and regulations [Davis v. Finney, 21 Kan. App. 2d 547, 549 (Kan. Ct. App. 1995)]. The hands-off doctrine was a dominated thinking about the U.S. correctional law which held that the law did not follow the convicted offenders into the prison. It ended at the prison’s gate. Prison conditions and the prisoner’s life in prison were controlled by prison administrators.

Judges believed prisoners had no rights because they had forfeited them as a result of their crimes, and judges did not interfere with the administration of correctional institutions. In Ruffin v. Commonwealth, 62 Va. 790, 796 (Va. 1872), the court stated that prisoners are the slaves of the State undergoing punishment for heinous crimes committed against the laws of the land.

However, the hands-off doctrine declined with the prisoner’s right movement and activism from a few federal judges. The hands-off doctrine formally ended with two decisions from the Supreme Court in the early 1970s. In the first decision, the court held that "[T]here is no Iron Curtain between the Constitution and the prisons of this country" [Wolf v. McDonnell, 418, U.S. 539, 555-56 (1974)]. In Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396, 405-06 (1974), the court held that, if a prison regulation or practice offends a fundamental constitutional guarantee, the federal courts will exercise their duty to protect those rights. It is now settled law that "hands-off" ends where the infringement of constitutional rights begins.