Violations of the 8th Amendment?

Nineteen years ago, Johnny killed his wife in a fit of rage when he came home one night and saw his wife in bed with another man. Based on the mandatory sentencing guidelines at the time of his conviction, a judge sentenced Johnny to life in prison without any opportunity for parole. For the past twenty years, Johnny has been a model prisoner. As a prisoner, Johnny finished his college degree and worked as a cook in the prison kitchen. One day, there was a fight in the mess hall between two other prisoners resulting in the death of one prisoner and several injuries to correction officers. At the time of the fight, Johnny was working in the kitchen and took no role in the fight.

After the fight, the warden of the prison imposes a series of punishments. First, the warden orders a 24-hour prison lockdown of the prison. This lockdown of the prison lasted ten days, where the prisoners were not allowed out of their cells. Second, the warden believes that isolation of the most violent prisoners for an extended period can cut down on violence in the prisons. Because of Johnny’s murder conviction, the warden orders Johnny to serve one year in solitary confinement. During Johnny’s time in solitary confinement. Johnny’s “treats” including adult magazines, reading materials, television and radio privileges, caffeinated sodas, candy, and desserts are all cut off. Finally, the warden halts all visits to prisoners for one year. After sitting in solitary confinement for more than six months, Johnny files an internal complaint with the warden. In his complaint, Johnny argues that the warden’s punitive measures violated his 8th Amendment rights. The warden denied Johnny’s complaint and then Johnny filed a complaint in the federal court.

Do you think that the warden’s measures constituted violations of the 8th Amendment?

To decide whether Johnny’s Eighth Amendment rights were violated when the warden took away his prison privileges and placed him into solitary confinement, we begin with an understanding of what the Eight Amendment states. The Eighth Amendment provides: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” [1] The provision that is applicable to our fact pattern is the cruel and unusual punishment provision. To determine what cruel and unusual punishment is, we look to Furman. [2] In Furman, Justice Brennan outlined four principles the Court must use to determine whether a punishment is cruel and unusual. 

The first principle is that a “punishment must not by its severity be degrading to human dignity.” [3] Without satisfying this principle, claimant has no standing in a cruel and unusual punishment claim. When Johnny was placed in solitary confinement, he was placed there as part of a prison wide punishment for a fight which he was not part of that led to several injuries to correctional officers. Coupling this fact with Johnny being confined in a cell for approximately twenty-three hours per day with almost no contact with other people; a hard-concrete bed, and a small cell with no windows, there is a strong argument to be made that the punishment was degrading to human dignity.

The second principle outlined by Justice Brennan is whether the punishment is a “severe punishment that is obviously inflicted in wholly arbitrary fashion.” [4] When the warden decided to isolate a selected class of inmates based on the violent crimes they were convicted of, it could be argued that the warden’s selection of such a class was with particular reason, not arbitrary and did not violate the second principle. However, one could also argue that the selection of inmates convicted of crimes was totally arbitrary since, especially in Johnny’s case, he was a model inmate. He did not take part in the fight. He was not even present at the location of the fight and during his incarceration, he showed no propensity for violence. Possibly the Warden could have focused the punishment on those inmates who have a history of committing violent acts in the prison instead. However, whether this second principle was violated by the warden would be a question of fact that the Court would have to decide. My belief is that the Warden did violate this principle.

The third principle is whether the punishment is clearly rejected throughout society. Even though solitary confinement is psychologically damaging, does not reform the inmate and has been said to “incessantly and unmercifully devour the victim (inmate),” [5] the rejection of solitary confinement by society ended in 1983. [6] Because of the murder of two prison guards at the Marion Federal Prison, the practice of solitary confinement was reinstituted and became a mainstream staple which prison’s use as both a protectionary measure and a disciplinary measure for inmates. [7] This principle poses a dilemma for Johnny’s cruel and unusual punishment claim in that the punishment (solitary confinement) is a widespread and acceptable form of punishment in the prison system. An extreme difficulty for Johnny is that even though the debilitating psychological effects of solitary confinement are well documented, public policy continues to support this form of punishment, especially when the society has to gauge whether safety, order and discipline in the prison is best achieved by solitary confinement.

The fourth and last principle to consider is whether the punishment has been demonstrated to be clearly necessary. [8] While it is always necessary to curtail prison violence, in Johnny’s case the punishment meted out by the warden seemed to be because the corrections officers were injured. It could be argued that to the effect that possible injury to corrections officers was mitigated by the punishment, it was necessary. But, this seems to be a bit of a stretch. The focus of the analysis should be on whether the punishment meted out to Johnny, who was not involved in the violence and posed no threat to the institution, was necessary. The answer is no. What the warden did was to take the easiest and quickest route by isolating inmates who were convicted of violent crimes even when the inmate posed no immediate threat to the institution. While solitary confinement may have stopped some violent inmates from committing more violence, he also punished those who were not a threat and subjected all of the punished inmates to the debilitating effects of solitary confinement. Lastly, isolating inmates convicted of violent crimes is no guarantee that two inmates convicted of non-violent crimes will not resort to violence to resolve a dispute. Prison is a harsh place where those who may have never been predisposed to violence can suddenly find themselves fighting for their lives. 

To summarize how Johnny’s case relates to Justice Brennan’s Four Principles, the punishment was humanly degrading, but there is a question of fact as to whether the punishment was arbitrarily imposed. The punishment is widely accepted throughout our society, but there is a question as to whether the punishment was actually necessary. Based on this summary, it is likely that the warden’s actions did violate Johnny’s Eighth Amendment rights.  

Then to explore a different path, we look to Farmer. [9] In Farmer, the issue was whether there was a violation of the inmate’s Eight Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment when the inmate, who was a transsexual was transferred to a penitentiary where he was beaten and raped. The inmate sued claiming the prison failed to protect him from harm in violation of his Eighth Amendment rights. [10] The Court held that “cruel and unusual punishment is not violated unless the defendant acted, at a minimum, with deliberate indifference.” [11] Deliberate indifference is defined as “awareness of and disregard for the risk of harm to another person’s life, body, or property. [12] Yet, when the Court gives its rationale for what constitutes deliberate indifference as applied to the assault in Farmer, the Court is sympathetic to the State in that it gives the State the benefit of the doubt in terms of what it knew or should have known. However, the Court then stated:

Nor may a prison official escape liability for deliberate indifference by showing that, while he was aware of an obvious, substantial risk to inmate safety, he did not know that the complainant was especially likely to be assaulted by the specific prisoner who eventually committed the assault. The question under the Eighth Amendment is whether prison officials, acting with deliberate indifference, exposed a prisoner to a sufficiently substantial “risk of serious damage to his future health.”[13]

Farmer tells us that the prison cannot escape liability for deliberate indifference. Applying Farmer to Johnny’s circumstances, the question is whether the prison acting with deliberate indifference exposed Johnny to a sufficiently substantial risk of serious damage to his future health? What is most significant here and in Johnny’s favor is the language focusing on future health. 

The argument on Johnny’s behalf is that when the Warden decided to impose a ten-day lockdown, there was no violation of the Eight Amendment since the only issue with the temporary lockdown was that it was uncomfortable to the inmates. The Eight Amendment does not concern itself with conditions affecting the comfort level of the inmates. [14] However, when the warden took it upon himself to step outside of acceptable Eighth Amendment constraints and place Johnny in a yearlong solitary confinement, he did so with deliberate indifference and exposed Johnny to imminent damage to his future mental health when there was no need to do so since the lockdown was an option available to employ.

Because the prison is an expert in all things concerning the imprisonment of criminals and knows what the debilitating effects of solitary confinement are on the life and body of the inmate, placing the inmate in solitary confinement, especially for one year, coupled with the denial of privileges and visits from friends and family, constitutes a violation of Johnny’s Eighth Amendment rights.  

[1] U.S. Const. amend. XIII.

[2] Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972).

[3] Id. at 281.

[4] Id. 

[5] Jules Lobel, Prolonged Solitary Confinement and the Constitution, 11 U. PA. J. Const. L. 115, 118 (2008) (quoting Torsten Eriksson, The Reformers, an Historical Survey of Pioneer Experiments in the Treatment of Criminals 49 (1976) (quoting Du Systeme Penitentiaire Aux Etats-Unis Et De Son Application En France (1833))).

[6] See, e.g., Sarah Childress & Michelle Mizner, “Lock It Down”: How Solitary Started in the U.S., PBS (Apr. 22, 2014, 9:43 PM), locked-up-in-america/lock-it-down-how-solitary-started-in-the-u-s/; Lance Tapley, Bonnie Kerness: Pioneer in the Struggle Against Solitary Confinement, Solitary Watch: News From a Nation in Lockdown(Nov. 8, 2012),

[7] Id.

[8] Furman, supra, at 281.

[9] Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832–34 (1994).

[10] Id. at 830.

[11] Bryan A. Garner, Black’s Law Dictionary 842 (9th ed. 2009).

[12] Farmer, supra, at 844.

[13] Id. at 843.

[14] Id. at 832 (quoting Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U. S. 337, 349 (1981)).

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