Excessive bail shall not required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is part of the original Bill of Rights, imposes important limitations on the government's treatment of criminal defendants (the bail clause) and punishment of persons convicted of crimes (the fines and punishments clauses). Most relevant for civil rights law purposes, the Eighth Amendment, which applies to both the federal and state governments (via the Fourteenth Amendment), prohibits the mistreatment of prisoners. Specifically, prisoners may not be subjected to excessive force and must be provided with minimally acceptable conditions of confinement, including shelter, food, and medical care.
For a general overview of the Eighth Amendment, see here (from the Heritage Foundation).
The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed Eighth Amendment prison issues in two recent cases: Wilkins v. Gaddy (2010) and Ortiz v. Jordan (2011).
Wilkins v. Gaddy
The plaintiff in Wilkins was a North Carolina state prisoner who brought an excessive force claim against a prison guard who allegedly assaulted him "without any provocation." The district court dismissed the complaint on the grounds that the plaintiff had suffered only a "de minimis" injury, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court (in a per curiam opinion) reversed the court of appeals and reinstated the plaintiff's lawsuit. Reiterating its holding in Hudson v. McMillian (1992), the Supreme Court emphasized that a serious or significant injury is not the threshold requirement for an Eighth Amendment excessive force claim. Rather, the issue is "whether force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm." Thus, the inquiry focuses on "the nature of the force rather than the extent of the injury." The Eighth Amendment does not allow prison officials to inflict physical punishment on inmates, "no matter how diabolical or inhuman," so long as the inmate does not suffer serious injury. At the same time, "not every malevolent touch by a prison guard gives rise to a federal cause of action"; a "de minimis" use of force, even if improper, is not actionable. The Court thus concluded that the plaintiff had stated a claim for relief, but emphasized that "to prevail, Wilkins will ultimately have to prove not only that the assault actually occurred but also that it was carried out 'maliciously and sadistically' rather than as part of 'a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline.' Moreover, even if Wilkins succeeds, the relatively modest nature of his alleged injuries will no doubt limit the damages he may recover."
Ortiz v. Jordan
The plaintiff in Ortiz had been an inmate at an Ohio women's prison. She alleged that on two consecutive nights she was sexually assaulted by a prison guard. She complained about the first attack on the night it happened and expressed fear that the guard would attack her again (the guard had threatened to "see you tomorrow"), but the defendant prison officials did nothing to stop the second attack. As the Supreme Court noted, this violated the plaintiff's right to reasonable protection from violence while in custody. To establish such a claim, referred to as a "deliberate indifference" claim, an inmate must show that prison officials knew that the inmate faced a substantial risk of serious harm and disregarded that risk by failing to take reasonable measures to abate it. In this case, the plaintiff proved her case at trial and the jury awarded her $350,000 against one defendant and $275,000 against the other defendant. The technical legal issue before the Supreme Court was whether the defendants were allowed to appeal the district court's denial of their motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds after the jury had rendered its verdict. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit sided with the defendants, granted the motion, and overturned the verdict. The Supreme Court disagreed and reinstated the jury's decision, explaining that there was no procedural basis for the court of appeals to revisit the defendants' qualified immunity motion and thus the court of appeals had "no warrant to upset the jury's decision on the officials' liability." Although the Ortiz case focused on procedural issues governing appeals, it illustrates that prison officials can be held liable for failing to protect inmates from violence.