Democracy Beyond Bars: Bringing Political Prisoners to Light

The term “political prisoner” refers to a person detained, incarcerated, or facing legal consequences due to their political beliefs and activities. Over the years, the criminal justice system has inhabited many political prisoners for several reasons, mainly due to controversial movements and opinions. While free speech and the freedom to express oneself is a concrete law in the Constitution, there is still an increasing controversy around political prisoners and how they affect national security, individual rights, and government transparency.

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The following section discusses the history and the present state of political prisoners within the criminal justice system and why it is crucial to bring this topic to light.

A. Pointed Summary

  • The discussions that are sparked because of this topic
  • The history and present state of political prisoners in the US criminal justice system

B. Relevance

From civil rights movements to anti-war movements and modern whistleblowing, legal dissidents with controversial opinions have been convicted for challenging governmental ideas and the system. In the current state, political prisoners are still a primary focus of the justice system’s concern as the debates being extended to online platforms form even more complex prospects. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention have highlighted the increasing number of political prisoners and raised several questions and discussions around the civil liberties practiced by legal dissidents and government accountability. These cases raise concerns about legal boundaries that can be, for example, applied to the law of freedom of speech and whether it is threatened or not. Moreover, the impact of government security and transparency is also essential to this discussion as they also confront democratic values and to what extent the government can interfere with one’s privacy. 


The term political prisoner was first defined loosely by Amnesty International in 1961 in the context of ‘Prisoners of conscience,’ referring to the incrimination of individuals based on their political stances that, in most cases, seek to challenge the status quo. Throughout its history, the United States has prosecuted people on the basis of involvement in anti-war and civil-rights movements and war on terrorism detainees. Most of them fall under the category as those seen as ideologically threatening the integrity or the security of the country. Ever since, many rulings have been passed in the US and by international organizations protecting individuals’ rights of free expression and dissent. However, parallelly it has been difficult to classify what exactly is meant by the term “political prisoner,” due to its multifaceted nature involving irregular definitions of political crimes and the ideological contexts involved, such as race, religion, and gender.

A. Current Stances

In the last decade, political prisoners have often been viewed as victims of government action aimed at suppressing opposition and dissent, and charged with claims of terrorism, sedition, conspiracy and treason. Although the First Amendment of the US Constitution protects the freedom of speech, assembly and association, along with special provisions in the Bill of Rights, that seek to protect individuals against wrongful or exploitative incrimination (as stated in the 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th amendments), there have still been cases that contest the aforementioned. For example, Chelsea Manning, a U.S. army intelligence analyst was imprisoned in 2010 for leaking classified documents to Wikileaks, an independent investigative agency, due to her actions being seen as misconduct and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Realists often view political incrimination as a way of protecting the interests of the nation. However, libertarians contest it with the opposing viewpoint of it exploiting human rights, and promoting the interests of the state over the citizens.

B. Tried Policy

In the US, there are no specific laws that legalize the imprisonment of individuals on a political basis as the Constitution is based on the principles of due process and protection from wrongful incrimination. Habeas Corpus, a fundamental right that protects individuals against unlawful and indeterminate imprisonment, was fully enacted in 1867 and was extended to all state prisoners. It essentially enables incriminated individuals to lawfully challenge the righteousness of their incarceration. Furthermore, the Fifth and the Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution guarantee due process of law, including fair and legal representation has enabled protection for political prisoners. The US is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (effective March 1976), a treaty seeking to protect and safeguard the political and civil rights of individuals, including rights to expression, faith, assembly, electoral choice, and so forth. Thus national protocols and multilateral agreements can equally serve well in terms of protection of individual rights, especially against political incarceration.

Policy Problem

A. Risks of Indifference

Political Prisoners in the United States are subjects of several controversies; However, issues surrounding the unclear legal definition of Political Prisoners in the United States, disparities in their treatment, and representation have had long-lasting impacts on countries and may pose similar challenges to the United States. The ambiguity around the term “Political Prisoners” has, in the past, allowed for the creation of different schools of thought in terms of its definition. In the present, it remains challenging for a lawful definition of “Political Prisoners” to be made in the United States given that over the course of history, it has been used in several different contexts. One of the schools of thought for defining the term, argues that a Political Prisoner stands for someone persecuted “because of that person's ‘political’ beliefs.” However, even this definition in itself, has its loopholes. As the Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law underlined in 1976 —  holding its statements to be true to this day — there is a variable nature to the term “political beliefs” which depends on a case-to-case basis as well. The fact that this definition is open for interpretation in several cases, poses a threat to not only political freedom but also citizen’s human rights as it may be used to for suppression by opening a door for arrests on the account of a person being a political prisoner, with a flawed reasoning behind why that person is being considered a political prisoner. According to the US Department of State, for many political prisoners around the world, their “detention” is specifically created to restrict them from their political activities under unjust reasoning. In the case of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the leading political figure of her time in Burma was arrested for her leadership of the National League for Democracy in Burma, an opposing party promoting democracy and human rights. This door for arrests in itself poses another threat since Political Prisoners in the past century in the United States have been subject to racial discrimination and inhumane treatment. Given the racial disparities among those who are arrested in the United States, according to The National Conference of Black Lawyers in their “Submission to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review” of 2010, this “class” of political prisoners, those who are arrested due to works towards changing the racial landscape of the United States, have suffered political repression in the form of denied due process and severe abuse in many cases. Even though the United States has relatively just and transparent policies around the detention of political prisoners and has in the past and the present, urged countries to free political prisoners, there are still approximately 100 political prisoners in the United States. The number is relatively small to that of several other countries around the world, but the risks of  an ambiguous system even for that number of people, are extremely high. Without appropriate surety around the concept of political prisoners and policy reform to ensure just treatment and detention, Political Prisoners will continue to face the threat of potentially suffering from the consequences of an unregulated  system of justice and incrimination.

Policy Options

Policy dealing with political prisoners must prosecute based on the actual harm done by the convict and legal doctrine rather than out of political interest. Since the Supreme Court revoked the ability to present new evidence post-incarceration and argue ineffective assistance of counsel, the only way to deal with the influx of political prisoners is to improve initial defense, prison experience, and public consensus. Additionally, legislators must implement both restorative and legal reforms aimed at strengthening procedural protections. Political prisoners often struggle with an inequitable distribution of legal resources needed to challenge the charges against them fairly. This includes disparities in the financial resources needed to initiate legal proceedings and limited socio-psychological support, particularly in cases involving political offenses. Internally, certain issues persist concerning equitable representation and impartial interpretation, such as insufficient gender variety among those entrusted with jurisprudence, restricted comprehension of matters concerning detainees of a political nature, the intrusion of predisposed viewpoints, and ambiguous laws. 

Fully reforming political prisoners’ treatment demands diligent consideration of international guidelines and frameworks that offer remodeling practices under universal standards of justice and human rights. While specific international agreements or laws may not directly address political prisoners, they often contain provisions related to fair trial standards and the treatment of detainees. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, otherwise known as the Mandela Rules, for example, establish a foundation upon which all inmates, regardless of designation such as political detainees, are ensured compassionate and impartial treatment through a framework guaranteeing equitable handling. Such a policy can not only improve treatment of political prisoners but also all prisoners as a whole.

A major challenge the US faces is the lack of a federal definition for political inmates. As opposed to certain nations, the US does not have a unique lawful class for people imprisoned for political acts. Rather than this, they tend to be charged and locked up under regular criminal codes, provoking inquiries regarding the suitability of such general accusations and punishments. Efforts to establish a consistent and effective designation of political detainees within the United States are needed to minimize the present ambiguity and inconsistency surrounding political prisoners. Legislative reforms at the federal and state levels are suggested to establish criteria for identifying political prisoners and distinguishing them from ordinary criminals. Establishing a precise legal designation confirms that those incarcerated due to their political beliefs obtain the unique care and safeguards that they deserve as per worldwide human rights benchmarks.

Ensuring political prisoners have improved access to legal counsel is another crucial facet requiring attention in remedying how such detainees are handled. Political prisoners often struggle to obtain skilled counsel due to the controversy surrounding a politically charged case. This challenge can potentially bias how their cases are handled in court and influence their due process. Legal aid access expansion, especially for those with constrained finances, should be a policy concentration, centering on broadening lawful guidance availability. As outlined by international human rights standards, the strengthening of how individuals are rightfully ensured due process and afforded an impartial adjudication of their cases is necessary to ensure a fair trial.

Public awareness crucially impacts advocacy efforts for political prisoners' rights by playing a pivotal part in bringing wider attention to their plight. By illuminating the dire circumstances endured by those unjustly detained for their beliefs and exposing the nuanced intricacies of their conditions alongside the overarching deficiencies within the system meant to fairly and impartially administer justice, needed attention could be obtained on reforms that are urgently needed. Heightened awareness can lead to advocacy efforts, populace pressure on lawmakers, and greater transparency and responsibility in dealing with political prisoners. Both domestic and international groups have a considerable role in shedding light on individual cases and systematic hurdles.

The issue of political prisoners within the United States and the rest of the world is a complex and multifaceted one, which can and has resulted in far-reaching implications on not only individual rights and liberties but also on governmental transparency and accountability. Even though the concept of free speech has been enshrined in the Constitution, the treatment and classification of political prisoners have continued to remain highly debated topics. This brief highlights the need for legislative reforms to establish clear criteria for identifying political prisoners and improving access to legal counsel, in addition to raising significant public awareness about these individuals and their backgrounds and circumstances. As society moves forward, it remains vital to pursue policy solutions focused on persecuting individuals based on legal doctrine rather than illegitimate political interests in order to work toward a justice system that upholds the crucial values of democracy, free speech, and human rights.


The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Michelle Liou, Nolan Ezzet, and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Policy Department within the Institute.

Works Cited

  1. “Political Prisoner.” Encyclopædia Britannica, October 13, 2023.
  2. Smith, Christopher E. “Key Constitutional Language: 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, & 14th Amendments.” Criminal Procedure Undergraduate Edition, December 15, 2022. 
  3. LII / Legal Information Institute. “Habeas Corpus,” n.d.,the%20right%20to%20habeas%20corpus 
  4. “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) | Equality and Human Rights Commission,” n.d.
  5.  "Best Practices for Governments to Advocate for and Secure the ...." Accessed 10 Oct. 2023.
  6. Political prisoners by country 2023. Accessed October 21, 2023. 
  7. Human Rights Watch. “Burma: Chronology of Aung San Suu Kyi’s Detention,” October 28, 2020. 
  8. United States Department of State. “Voices of Political Prisoners - United States Department of State,” December 8, 2021. 
  9. Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law - Vanderbilt University. Accessed October 22, 2023. 
  10. “Supreme Court Guts Lifeline for Prisoners Who Claim Wrongful Convictions.” The Guardian, May 23, 2022. 
  11. Deutsch, Attny. Michael E., and Atty. Jan Susler. “Political Prisoners in the United States: The Hidden Reality.” Humanity & Society 15, no. 4 (November 1, 1991): 350–59. 
  12. Mandela Rules - United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Accessed October 22, 2023. 
  13. Wagner, Wendy Sawyer and Peter. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023.” Prison Policy Initiative. Accessed October 21, 2023. 
  14. “Access and Contact with Lawyer.” APT. Accessed October 21, 2023. 
  15. United Nations principles and guidelines on access to legal aid in ... Accessed October 22, 2023.

Aarya Chowdhry

Criminal Justice Team Lead

Aarya currently co-leads Criminal Justice Policy in the Policy department and is an Outreach Intern in the Education department at YIP. Fortunate to call Kanpur, India, her hometown, she is an avid reader, learner and poet.

Anagha Nagesh

Criminal Justice Team Lead

Anagha is a current student at John P. Stevens High School in New Jersey. She joined YIP in the Spring 2023 fellowship and now co-leads the Criminal Justice policy team. She hopes to pursue political science or policy in college. In her free time, she likes to sing, act, and travel.

Alayna Hassan

Alayna Hassan

Alayna is studying natural sciences with a specialization in English, in Sweden. She is very passionate about health, public policy and social justice (among many other topics). In the future, she aspires to merge these interests to help create change for good. In her free time, she love to read, binge-watch sitcoms and doing anything creative.

Suchir Paruchuri

Policy Analyst

Emily Tsai

Policy Analyst

Emily is a passionate and inquisitive individual who finds joy in the simple act of reading. As a current junior, she has cultivated her fervor within the realm of gender rights, criminal justice, and public policy.