Free-World Law Behind Bars

99 Pages Posted: 16 Jun 2022 Last revised: 12 Feb 2024


What law governs American prisons and jails, and what does it matter? This Article offers new answers to both questions.

To many scholars and advocates, “prison law” means the constitutional limits that the Eighth Amendment and Due Process Clauses impose on permissible punishment. Yet, as I show, 'free-world' regulatory law also shapes incarceration, determining the safety of the food imprisoned people eat, the credentials of their health-care providers, the costs of communicating with their family members, and whether they are exposed to wildfire smoke or rising floodwaters.

Unfortunately, regulatory law’s protections often recede at the prison gate. Sanitation inspectors visit correctional kitchens, find coolers smeared with blood and sinks without soap—and give passing grades. Medical licensure boards permit suspended doctors to practice—but only on incarcerated people. Constitutional law does not fill the gap, treating standards like a threshold for toxic particulates or the requirements of a fire code more as a safe harbor than a floor.

But were it robustly applied, I argue, free-world regulatory law would have a lot to offer those challenging carceral conditions that constitutional prison law lacks. Whether you think that criminal-justice policy’s problem is its lack of empirical grounding or you want to shift power and resources from systems of punishment to systems of care, I contend that you should take a close look at free-world regulatory law behind bars, and work to strengthen it.

Keywords: prison, jail, incarceration, regulatory, conditions of confinement, decarceration, abolition

Suggested Citation

Littman, Aaron, Free-World Law Behind Bars. 131 Yale Law Journal 1385 (2022), UCLA School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 22-18, Available at SSRN:

Do you have negative results from your research you’d like to share?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics