USA > US Constitution > Prisons and Punishment

Prisons and Punishment

"It is unquestioned that '[c]onfinement' in a prison . . . is a form of punishment subject to scrutiny under the Eighth Amendment standards."199 "Conditions in prison must not involve the wanton and unnecessary infliction of pain, nor may they be grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime warranting imprisonment.... Conditions . . . , alone or in combination, may deprive inmates of the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities.... But conditions that cannot be said to be cruel and unusual under contemporary standards are not unconstitutional. To the extent that such conditions are restrictive and even harsh, they are part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society."200 These general principles apply both to the treatment of individuals201 and to the creation or maintenance of prison conditions that are inhumane to inmates generally.202 Ordinarily there is both a subjective and an objective inquiry. Before conditions of confinement not formally meted out as punishment by the statute or sentencing judge can qualify as "punishment," there must be a culpable, "wanton" state of mind on the part of prison officials.203 In the context of general prison conditions, this culpable state of mind is "deliberate indifference";204 in the context of emergency actions, e.g., actions required to suppress a disturbance by inmates, only a malicious and sadistic state of mind is culpable.205 When excessive force is alleged, the objective standard varies depending upon whether that force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or whether it was applied maliciously and sadistically to cause harm. In the good-faith context, there must be proof of significant injury. When, however, prison officials "maliciously and sadistically use force to cause harm, contemporary standards of decency are always violated," and there is no need to prove that "significant injury" resulted.206chanrobles-red

199 Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 345 (1981) (quoting Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, 685 (1978)).

200 452 U.S. at 347. See also Overton v. Bazzetta, 539 U.S. 126 (2003) (rejecting a challenge to a two-year withdrawal of visitation as punishment for prisoners who commit multiple substance abuse violations, characterizing the practice as “not a dramatic departure from accepted standards for conditions of confinement,” but indicating that a permanent ban “would present different considerations”).

201 E.g., Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976) (deliberate medical neglect of a prisoner violates Eighth Amendment); Jackson v. Bishop, 404 F.2d 571 (8th Cir. 1968) (beating prisoner with leather strap violates Amendment); Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25 (1993) (prisoner who alleged exposure to secondhand "environmental" tobacco smoke stated a cause of action under the Eighth Amendment).

202 E.g., Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678 (1978).

203 Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294 (1991).

204 501 U.S. at 303. Deliberate indifference in this context means something more than disregarding an unjustifiably high risk of harm that should have been known, as might apply in the civil context. Rather, it requires a finding that the responsible person acted in reckless disregard of a risk of which he or she was aware, as would generally be required for a criminal charge of recklessness. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994).

205 Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312 (1986) (arguably excessive force in suppressing prison uprising did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment).

206 Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 9 (1992) (beating of a shackled prisoner resulted in bruises, swelling, loosened teeth, and a cracked dental plate).

Beginning with Holt v. Sarver,207 federal courts found prisons or entire prison systems violative of the cruel and unusual punishments clause, and broad remedial orders directed to improving prison conditions and ameliorating prison life were imposed in more than two dozen States.208 But while the Supreme Court expressed general agreement with the thrust of the lower court actions, it set aside two rather extensive decrees and cautioned the federal courts to proceed with deference to the decisions of state legislatures and prison administrators.209 In both cases, the prisons involved were of fairly recent vintage and the conditions, while harsh, did not approach the conditions described in many of the lower court decisions that had been left undisturbed.210 Thus, concerns of federalism and of judicial restraint apparently actuated the Court to begin to curb the lower federal courts from ordering remedial action for systems in which the prevailing circumstances, given the resources States choose to devote to them, "cannot be said to be cruel and unusual under contemporary standards."211chanrobles-red

207 309 F. Supp. 362 (E.D. Ark. 1970), aff'd, 442 F.2d 304 (8th Cir. 1971), district court ordered to retain jurisdiction until unconstitutional conditions corrected, 505 F.2d 194 (8th Cir. 1974). The Supreme Court ultimately sustained the decisions of the lower courts in Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678 (1978).

208 Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 353-54 n.1 (1981) (Justice Brennan concurring) (collecting cases). See Note, Complex Enforcement: Unconstitutional Prison Conditions, 94 HARV. L. REV. 626 (1981).

209 Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979); Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337 (1981).

210 See, e.g., Pugh v. Locke, 406 F. Supp. 318 (M.D. Ala. 1976) (describing conditions of "horrendous overcrowding," inadequate sanitation, infested food, and "rampant violence"); Ramos v. Lamm, 639 F.2d 559 (10th Cir. 1981) (describing conditions "unfit for human habitation"). The primary issue in both Wolfish and Chapman was that of "double-celling," the confinement of two or more prisoners in a cell designed for one. In both cases, the Court found the record did not support orders ending the practice.

Congress initially encouraged litigation over prison conditions by enactment in 1980 of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act,212 but then in 1996 added restrictions through enactment of the Prison Litigation Reform Act.213 The Court upheld the latter law's provision for an automatic stay of prospective relief upon the filing of a motion to modify or terminate that relief, ruling that separation of powers principles were not violated.214chanrobles-red

211 Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 347 (1981). See also Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail, 502 U.S. 367 (1991) (allowing modification, based on a significant change in law or facts, of a 1979 consent decree that had ordered construction of a new jail with single-occupancy cells; modification was to depend upon whether the upsurge in jail population was anticipated when the decree was entered, and whether the decree was premised on the mistaken belief that single-celling is constitutionally mandated).

212 Pub. L. No. 96-247, 94 Stat. 349, 42 U.S.C. �� 1997 et seq.

213 Pub. L. No. 104-134, title VIII, 110 Stat. 1321-66 et seq.

214 Miller v. French, 530 U.S. 327 (2000). See also Porter v. Nussle, 122 S. Ct. 983 (2002) (applying the Act's requirement that prisoners exhaust administrative remedies).

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