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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 criminal defendants are convicted and sentenced, the Constitution still acts to guarantee their fundamental rights during confinement and treatment by corrections personnel.

When an inmate makes an Eighth Amendment challenge to punishment and confinement conditions, they typically do so in connection with federal civil rights laws, including 42 U.S. Code, Section 1983, and the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

Read on to learn more about cruel and unusual punishment, as well as ways to challenge conditions of confinement.

What is Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

Punishment that is 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, along with vermin and fire hazards.

Challenging Prison 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 may have to show that the institution's officials acted with "deliberate indifference" to the prisoner's 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 negligence on the part of corrections personnel.

Excessive Force Claims

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

In a Supreme Court case from 1992, an inmate was beaten by prison guards while handcuffed and shackled, in plain view of a supervisor. One of the questions 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 doesn't need to show a significant injury, only one that's de minimis.

Rather than focusing on the injury, the Court held that excessive force cases must 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 malicious and sadistic intent.

Exhaust the Administrative Process

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.

Questions About Cruel and Unusual Punishment? Contact an Attorney

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 from an experienced criminal defense attorney to set things right.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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