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.C. 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 corrections 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; and
  • 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.