Cruel and Unusual Punishment



In Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983), the Court held that no duration of confinement is per se unconstitutional.  This includes serving consecutive terms for different offenses, as discussed in United States v. Atteberry, 447 F.3d 562 (2006).  In that case, the Eighth Circuit held it was constitutional for a defendant to serve two consecutive sentences, because the sentences were within statutory limits and were not grossly disproportionate to the crimes.

While the Eighth Amendment forbids grossly disproportionate punishments for capital sentences, the court is less clear on its boundaries for noncapital sentences.  Capital sentences provide special constitutional protections that do not necessarily extend to noncapital sentences, as discussed in Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991).  In Harmelin, the Justices disagreed over the existence of a proportionality requirement for noncapital sentencing proceedings.  The lack of clarity on this issue was further discussed in Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63 (2003).  In Lockyer, the Court determined that for noncapital sentences, a gross proportionality requirement is only available in “exceedingly rare” and “extreme cases.”

The Supreme Court does, however, consider age when determining the constitutionality of imprisonment.  In Graham v. Florida, 130 S.Ct. 2011 (2010), the Supreme Court determined that, for juvenile non-homicide offenders, life sentences with no chance of parole was unconstitutional.  The Court reasoned that juveniles are less deserving of severe punishment because they are less culpable than adults and have a greater capacity for change.  In Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), the Court expanded on Graham to forbid life sentences without parole to juvenile homicide offenders.


The “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, as discussed in Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651 (1977).  This standard was refined in Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312 (1986), which distinguished between the force used in a good-faith efforts to restore discipline and the force used maliciously to cause harm.  The Court reviewed factors including the threat posed by an official, the amount of time an official had to respond to the situation, and the amount of pain inflicted on the inmate. 

Using this standard, the Supreme Court found that a prisoner’s Eighth Amendment right was violated in Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730 (2002).  The prisoner was handcuffed to a hitching post for 7 hours, taunted, and denied bathroom breaks.  The court reasoned that this treatment exceeded what was necessary to restore order.  In Hudson v McMillian, 503 U.S. 1 (1992), the Court held that a prisoner’s Eighth Amendment rights could be violated if malicious force was used against him, even in the prisoner did not experience significant pain.

Conditions of Confinement 

Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976) established that prisoners have constitutional rights beyond sentencing, to conditions of confinement.  The Court utilized the “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” standard when reviewing conditions of confinement.  Estelle, however, denied a prisoner’s Eighth Amendment claim because he was unable to show there was a deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.  In Brown v. Plata, 131 S.Ct. 1910 (2011), the Court held that prison overcrowding in California was unconstitutional because the living conditions resulted in medical care violations.  The Court reasoned that prisoners would suffer and could die if they did not receive with adequate medical care.

In Gates v Cook, 376 F.3d 323 (2004), the Fifth Circuit followed the rule established by the Supreme Court.  In that case, the court determined that confinement was unconstitutional if officers showed a deliberate indifference to conditions posing a substantial risk of serious harm to inmates.  In Gates, the court found conditions of confinement to be unconstitutional because inmates were subject to filthy conditions, including pest infestation; improper sanitary conditions and plumbing; and inadequate mental health care.  The Eighth Amendment, however, only protects against inhumane conditions of confinement.   In McLaughlin v. Farries, 122 Fed. Appx. 692 (2004), the Fifth Circuit found that it was not unconstitutional for a prison to have a leaking air conditioner unit causing prison floors to be slippery.  The court reasoned that there is no mandate on comfortable living.