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Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, individuals convicted of a crime have the right to be free of "cruel and unusual" punishment while in jail or prison. This means that after a criminal defendant is convicted and sentenced, the Constitution still acts to guarantee his or her fundamental rights concerning conditions of confinement and treatment by corrections personnel. Inmates' Eighth Amendment challenges to punishment and confinement conditions are typically brought in connection with federal civil rights laws, including 42 U.S. Code, Section 1983, and the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

What is "Cruel and Unusual" Punishment?

No universal definition exists, but any punishment that is clearly inhumane or that violates basic human dignity may be deemed "cruel and unusual." For example, in 1995, a federal court in Massachusetts found that inmates' rights were violated when they were held in a 150-year-old prison that lacked toilets, and was fraught with vermin and fire hazards.

Challenging Confinement Conditions: What Must be Shown?

When challenging conditions of confinement, such as a correctional institution's procedure for providing food or medical services, a prisoner usually must show that the institution's officials or officers acted with "deliberate indifference" to the prisoner's constitutional rights. This means that:

  • The institution's employees were aware of some danger or risk of harm to an inmate;
  • The employees chose not to take any steps to remedy the problem; and
  • The inmate's fundamental rights were violated as a result.

Deliberate indifference is a fairly high standard to meet, because the inmate must show more than mere negligent behavior on the part of corrections personnel.

Excessive Force Claims

Of the claims that prisoners can make under the Eighth Amendment's cruel and unusual punishment provision, one of the more common claims is that of excessive force. With these claims, a prisoner may allege that correctional staff used physical force against them. However, in a prison setting, the use of physical force and restraints are commonplace and oftentimes required to maintain order and safety. So, in this environment, what constitutes "excessive force"?

The Supreme Court addressed this in a case from 1992 where an inmate was beaten by prison guards while handcuffed and shackled, in plain view of a supervisor. One of the issues in that case was whether the prisoner had suffered a "significant injury" or whether his injuries were minor requiring no medical attention. The Supreme Court held that an inmate does not need to show a significant injury, only one that is de minimis.

Rather than focusing on the injury, the Court held that excessive force cases must instead focus on the application of force. Specifically, whether the force was "applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm." Under this standard, then, an excessive force claim can be successful if it shows that the application of force was:

  • Not in good faith;
  • Not part of an effort to restore discipline; or
  • Was based, even in part, on a malicious and sadistic intent.

Additional Considerations

Prisoners filing claims of cruel and unusual punishment are normally required to administratively exhaust those claims before filing their case in court. The administrative process can differ by state but usually involves submission of a form detailing the events at issue and requesting relief from the prison system. Common reasons why an excessive force complaint may be dismissed in court for failure to exhaust administrative remedies can include the failure to:

  • Have included all of the allegations in their complaint in their original administrative claim form; and
  • Fully exhaust their claim at each level of review before filing their complaint in court.

Have an Attorney Review Your Case at No Charge

A person's rights don't disappear just because they were convicted of a crime. If you, or someone you love, is suffering from cruel and unusual punishment it can be very helpful to get professional assistance to set things right. Contact qualified local legal counsel for a free case review.

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