Prisoners' Rights Under Law - Eighth Amendment

court death punishment cruel

The Eighth Amendment guarantees that "cruel and unusual punishment [not be] inflicted." The Eighth Amendment has been used to challenge the death penalty, three-strikes laws, crowded prisons, lack of health or safety in prisons, and excessive violence by the guards. The Supreme Court has established several tests to determine whether conditions or actions violate the Eighth Amendment:

  • Did the actions or conditions offend concepts of "decency and human dignity and precepts of civilization which Americans profess to possess"?
  • Was it "disproportionate to the offense"?
  • Did it violate "fundamental standards of good conscience and fairness"?
  • Was the punishment unnecessarily cruel?
  • Did the punishment go beyond legitimate penal purposes?


Several landmark cases changed the way prisoners can be held in isolation. In Holt v. Sarver (300 F. Supp 82, 1969) a U.S. District Court in Arkansas found "solitary confinement or close confinement in isolation units of prisons not unconstitutional per se, but, depending on circumstances, it may violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments." Isolation cells in an Arkansas prison were used for prisoners who broke rules, those who needed protective custody to separate them from other inmates, and those who were:

general escape or security risks or who were awaiting trial on additional charges.… Confinement in isolation cells was not "solitary confinement" in the conventional sense of the term. On the contrary, the cells are substantially overcrowded.… The average number of men confined in a single cell seems to be four, but at times the number has been much higher (up to ten and eleven).

While the judges agreed that "if confinement of that type is to serve any useful purpose, it must be rigorous, uncomfortable, and unpleasant. However, there are limits to the rigor and discomfort of close confinement which a state may not constitutionally exceed."

The court found that the confinement of inmates in these isolation cells, which were "overcrowded, dirty, unsanitary, and pervaded by bad odors from toilets, constituted cruel and unusual punishment." The court also asserted that "prolonged confinement" of numbers of men in the same cell under unsanitary, dangerous conditions was "mentally and emotionally traumatic as well as physically uncomfortable. It is hazardous to health. It is degrading and debasing; it offends modern sensibilities, and, in the Court's estimation, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment."

In addition, those inmates who were not in isolation slept together in barracks where many of the inmates had weapons and attacked each other. While the court recognized that assaults, fights, and killings occurred in all penal institutions, the Arkansas Farm had not taken reasonable precautions. Prisoners should at least be "able to fall asleep at night without fear of having their throats cut before morning, and the state has failed to discharge a constitutional duty in failing to take steps to enable them to do so."

Another landmark case involving isolation occurred in the late 1970s, again in Arkansas. The state sentenced inmates to punitive isolation in extremely small cells for an indeterminate period, with their status being reviewed at the end of each fourteen-day period. While most were released within fourteen days, many remained in that status for weeks or months, depending on their attitudes as appraised by prison personnel. Usually the inmates shared a cell with one other inmate, and at times three or four were together, causing them to sleep on the floor. Considering that these were violent men filled with "frustration and hostility," and that some were "dangerous and psychopaths," confining them together caused threatening situations that produced "a forcible response from prison personnel."

The lower courts found that the force used by the guards was excessive and declared that "confinement of prisoners in punitive isolation for more than thirty days constituted cruel and unusual punishment and was impermissible." In Finney v. Hutto (548 F. 2d. 740, 1977) the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed.

The Death Penalty

Three Supreme Court cases, all decided in the 1970s, have produced the current interpretation of the Eighth Amendment relative to the death penalty. In Furman v. Georgia (408 U.S. 238, 1972), the Court held that the death penalty in three cases under review was "cruel and unusual" because under the then prevailing statutes juries had "untrammeled discretion to impose or withhold the death penalty." Due process required procedural fairness, including consideration of the severity of the crime and the circumstances. In the three cases decided in Furman, three individuals were condemned to die, two for rape and one for murder. All three of the offenders were black.

In response to Furman, states modified their statutes. North Carolina imposed a mandatory death sentence for first-degree murder. This law was tested in the Supreme Court as Woodson v. North Carolina (428 U.S. 980, 1976). The Court held that while the death penalty was not cruel and unusual punishment in every circumstance, it ruled that a mandatory death sentence did not satisfy the requirements laid down in Furman. The Court said: "North Carolina's mandatory death penalty statute for first-degree murder departs markedly from contemporary standards respecting the imposition of the punishment of death and thus cannot be applied consistently with the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments' requirement that the State's power to punish 'be exercised within the limits of civilized standards."' The Court overturned the North Carolina law.

Woodson was decided on July 2, 1976. On the same day the Court rendered its judgment in the case of Gregg v. Georgia, the case of a man sentenced to death for murder and robbery committed under new legislation passed in Georgia following Furman. In this case the Court upheld the death penalty saying, in part:

The Georgia statutory system under which petitioner was sentenced to death is constitutional. The new procedures on their face satisfy the concerns of Furman, since before the death penalty can be imposed there must be specific jury findings as to the circumstances of the crime or the character of the defendant, and the State Supreme Court thereafter reviews the comparability of each death sentence with the sentences imposed on similarly situated defendants to ensure that the sentence of death in a particular case is not disproportionate. Petitioner's contentions that the changes in Georgia's sentencing procedures have not removed the elements of arbitrariness and capriciousness condemned by Furman are without merit.

Death Penalty for Juveniles

In March 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty for minors is cruel and unusual punishment. In a five to four ruling, the court found it unconstitutional to sentence someone to death for a crime they committed under the age of eighteen. The ruling took seventy-three prisoners off death row.

As part of its argument for outlawing the death penalty for minors, the court cited scientific opinion that teenagers are too immature to be held accountable for the crimes they commit in the same way that adults are. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, speaking for the majority, explained: "From a moral standpoint, it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed."


In 2003 the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of the California three-strikes law, the nation's most severe. The case involved a defendant, Gary Albert Ewing, who had been sentenced to twenty-five years to life for a third offense, the theft of three golf clubs each valued at $399. His previous offenses included (among others) a burglary and a robbery while threatening his victim with a knife. Ewing v. California (538 U.S., 2003) was a good test of the California statute because neither one of Ewing's first two offenses were of a seriously violent character and the third, the triggering offense, was what under California law is known as a "wobbler," namely an offense that can be tried, at the prosecutor's option, as either a felony or a misdemeanor.

The petition in Ewing argued that the punishment was "cruel and unusual" and disproportionate to the offense committed. In effect Ewing had the profile of a habitual but petty criminal whose theft of golf clubs should have been tried as a misdemeanor. In this case the Court dismissed the proportionality argument and, instead, affirmed the state's right to set policy for the protection of the public. Quoting from another case, the Court said that "The Eighth Amendment does not require strict proportionality between crime and sentence [but] forbids only extreme sentences that are 'grossly disproportionate' to the crime." California had the right to incapacitate repeat offenders by incarcerating them. According to the Court, the Constitution did not mandate that the states apply any one penological theory.

Prison Conditions and Medical Care

In Rhodes v. Chapman (452 U.S. 337, 1981) the Supreme Court ruled that housing prisoners in double cells was not cruel and unusual punishment. The justices maintained that:

conditions of confinement, as constituting the punishment at issue, must not involve the wanton and unnecessary infliction of pain, nor may they be grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime warranting imprisonment. But conditions that cannot be said to be cruel and unusual under contemporary standards are not unconstitutional. To the extent such conditions are restrictive and even harsh, they are part of the penalty that criminals pay for their offenses against society.

The Court concluded that the Constitution "does not mandate comfortable prisons," and only those "deprivations denying the 'minimal civilized measure of life's necessities"' violate the Eighth Amendment.

In two later cases as well, the Supreme Court held that unpleasant or inadequate prison conditions and poor medical care did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment unless deliberate indifference by the authorities could be established. The Court established this principle in Wilson v. Seiter (501 U.S. 294, 1991) when it upheld the judgment of a lower court that prisoners "claiming that conditions of confinement constituted cruel and unusual punishment were required to show deliberate indifference on the part of prison officials." Wilson "alleged overcrowding, excessive noise, insufficient locker storage space, inadequate heating and cooling, improper ventilation, unclean and inadequate restrooms, unsanitary dining facilities and food preparation, and housing with mentally and physically ill inmates" proved "at best" that the authorities were negligent. However, the Court found that Wilson had insufficient grounds for claiming Eighth Amendment protection.

An earlier case, Estelle v. Gamble (429 U.S. 97, 1976) had paved the way for Wilson. On November 9, 1973, J. W. Gamble, an inmate of the Texas Department of Corrections, injured his back while performing a prison work assignment. Although he complained numerous times about his injury and received some pills, the guards accused him of malingering. In January the disciplinary committee placed Gamble in solitary confinement for refusing to work. On February 4 he asked to see a doctor for chest pains and blackouts. Almost twelve hours later a medical assistant saw him and had him hospitalized.

The next morning, after an electrocardiogram, he was placed on Quinidine for treatment of irregular cardiac rhythm and moved to administrative segregation. On February 7, after experiencing pain in his chest, left arm, and back, Gamble asked to see a doctor and was refused. The next day he was refused again. After finally seeing the doctor again on February 9 and being given Quinidine, Gamble swore out a complaint that the staff had "subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment."

In Estelle v. Gamble, the Court concluded that deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain," whether the indifference is displayed by prison doctors in their response to the prisoner's need or by prison guards who deny or delay access to treatment or interfere with the treatment. The Court, however, ruled that "every claim by a prisoner that he has not received adequate medical treatment" does not mean a violation of the Eighth Amendment. An "inadvertent failure to provide adequate medical care" is not "an unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" or "repugnant to the conscience of mankind.… Medical malpractice does not become a constitutional violation merely because the victim is a prisoner." Only deliberate indifference "can offend 'evolving standards of decency' in violation of the Eighth Amendment." Because Gamble saw medical personnel seventeen times over three months, the court did not find this a violation of the Eighth Amendment. "A medical decision not to order an X ray or like measures does not represent cruel and unusual punishment."

In another case, Helling v. McKinney (509 U.S. 25, 1993), the Court ruled that a Nevada inmate had the right to bring a court action because he had been assigned to a cell with another prisoner who smoked five packs of cigarettes daily, and he had not been informed of the health hazards that he could incur from second-hand smoke. Quoting its earlier decision in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Services (489 U.S. 189, 1989), the Court declared:

[W]hen the state takes a person into its custody and holds him there against his will, the Constitution imposes upon it a corresponding duty to assume some responsibility for his safety and general well-being.… The rationale for this principle is simple enough: when the state by the affirmative exercise of its power so restrains an individual's liberty that it renders him unable to care for himself, and, at the same time fails to provide for his basic human needs—e.g., food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and reasonable safety—it transgresses the substantive limits on state action set by the Eighth Amendment.

The justices asserted that prison administrators could not:

ignore a condition of confinement that is sure or very likely to cause serious illness and needless suffering the next week or month or year. In Hutto v. Finney (437 U.S. 678, 1978) we noted that inmates in punitive isolation were crowded into cells and that some of them had infectious maladies such as hepatitis and venereal disease. This was one of the prison conditions for which the Eighth Amendment required a remedy, even though it was not alleged that the likely harm would occur immediately and even though the possible infection might not affect all of those exposed.… Nor can we hold that prison officials may be deliberately indifferent to the exposure of inmates to a serious, communicable disease on the ground that the complaining inmate shows no serious current symptoms.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the district court for retrial, where McKinney had to prove his allegations to show that the Eighth Amendment was violated and that "society considers the risk that the prisoner complains of to be so grave that it violates contemporary standards of decency to expose anyone unwillingly to such a risk." However, in 1992, the director of the Nevada State Prisons had adopted a smoking policy restricting smoking to specified areas, which made McKinney's case virtually moot (a hypothetical case—only cases involving real injury can be considered by the courts).

Guards Using Force

In Whitney v. Albers (475 U.S. 372, 1986) the Supreme Court ruled that guards, during prison disturbances or riots, must balance the need "to maintain or restore discipline" through force against the risk of injury to inmates. Those situations require prison officials "to act quickly and decisively" and allow guards and administrators leeway in their actions. In Whitney a prisoner was shot in the knee during an attempt to rescue a hostage. The Court found that the injury suffered by the prisoner was not cruel and unusual punishment under the circumstances.

In 1983 Keith Hudson, an inmate at the state penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, argued with Jack McMillian, a guard. McMillian placed the inmate in handcuffs and shackles to take him to the administrative lockdown area. On the way, according to Hudson, McMillian punched him in the mouth, eyes, chest, and stomach. Another guard held him while the supervisor on duty watched. Hudson sued, accusing the guards of cruel and unusual punishment.

A magistrate found that the guards used "force when there was no need to do so," and the supervisor allowed their conduct, thus violating the Eighth Amendment. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, however, reversed the decision, ruling that:

inmates alleging use of excessive force in violation of the Eighth Amendment must prove: (1) significant injury; (2) resulting "directly and only from the use of force that was clearly excessive to the need"; (3) the excessiveness of which was objectively unreasonable; and (4) that the action constituted an unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.

The court agreed that the use of force was unreasonable and was a clearly excessive and unnecessary infliction of pain. However, the Court of Appeals found against Hudson because his injuries were "minor" and "required no medical attention."

The Supreme Court heard this case in 1992 (Hudson v. McMillian (503 U.S. 1) and disagreed that the inmate had to suffer serious injury before the Eighth Amendment could be invoked. In Whitney, the Court argued, the "extent of injury suffered by an inmate is one factor" considered to determine whether the use of force was unnecessary. However, the absence of serious injury, while "relevant … does not end" the Eighth Amendment inquiry. The question must be asked whether the force applied was a "good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically [applied] to cause harm." Although the Circuit Court termed the blows "minor," the Supreme Court viewed the extent of Hudson's injuries as no basis to dismiss his claims and ruled in Hudson's favor by reversing the Court of Appeals.

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about 8 years ago

my son was beating .by a co on 12/14/2011 after a visit.he was denied meadcal help for 3 a mother how can i get help?

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over 8 years ago

I am seeking help my son got hurt in Mt.Meigs Department Of Youth Services and he got hurt on 04/14/2011 and they did not get him no medical help until 05/11/2011 he had been suffering from real bad headaches from him slipping on water on the floor and hitting his head,

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over 10 years ago

I am the Keith Hudson who filed this

suit against prison guards. I just wanted to informed the legal public

that because of this suit, the then

sitting President Clinton, signed a Prison Litigation Reform Act, prohi-

biting prisoners to file suit under

forma pauperis (without having to pay filing fees). So, if a person has had (3) prior suits dismissed, he can not file under this section,

he would have to pay the fees, or have his case dismissed. Regardless

how severe the brutality is. This is

what the so-called good president Clinton did to mostly minority prisoners!

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over 7 years ago


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almost 8 years ago

i have a son at Ely state prison Nevada, who is in need of medical attention. he has developed numerous lumps on his neck and doctors keep telling him there nothing wrong with him. he has yet to have the proper testing to get a diagnosis so he can be treated his name is Christopher A. Hernandez #77683 do you even listen to our pleas?

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