Court limits prison guards' use of force

February 26, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court put new restrictions yesterday on prison guards' use of force to control unruly inmates, saying it is unconstitutional for guards to cause pain intentionally even if no serious injury results.

The ruling came on a 7-2 vote, with new Justice Clarence Thomas issuing a strongly worded dissent that laid out a deeply conservative view of prisoners' rights.

Mr. Thomas, in his first opinion as a member of the court dealing with an inmate rights' claim, protested vehemently over the court's repeated use of the Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" to protect inmates against harsh conditions inside prison.

That ban, included in the Eighth Amendment, "is not, and should not be turned into, a National Code of Prison Regulation," Mr. Thomaswrote in an opinion that was supported only by Justice Antonin Scalia -- the court's most conservative member.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in the court's main opinion, said that it always would be unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment -- with or without serious injury to a prisoner -- "when prison officials maliciously and sadistically use force to cause harm" while trying to subdue an inmate.

The court used the same constitutional standard it had adopted six years ago for cases in which guards use force to quell a prison riot, saying yesterday that that rule now would apply "whenever guards use force to keep order."

A federal appeals court in Atlanta had ruled 19 months ago that guards would violate a prisoner's right not to be harmed by the use of force only if the inmate suffered "significant injury" due to the force used.

Rejecting that approach, the Supreme Court focused upon pain inflicted, and upon the guards' intention in using force, rather than upon the nature or extent of any injuries to an inmate.

Guards will be able to justify the amount of force they used, Justice O'Connor wrote, only if they used it "in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline," rather than to harm intentionally.

"Not every push or shove" by a guard will be unconstitutional, she stressed. But anything more than the minimum use of force needed in the situation is outlawed.

In the case before the court, the justices said that it was clear that the particular inmate had suffered unconstitutionally when "blows directed at [him] caused bruises, swelling, loosened teeth and a cracked dental plate."

The case involved Keith J. Hudson, who was an inmate in the Angola, La., state prison in October 1983.

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