Supreme Court Calls Prison Punishment Unconstitutional, Allows Inmate to Sue

The Supreme Court on Thursday declared unconstitutional an Alabama prison practice of handcuffing inmates to a metal pole in the summer heat. The court ruled that an inmate could sue over his chaining.

The punishment, revived in that state in 1995 as part of a get-tough program for criminals, is "obvious" cruel and unusual punishment, the court ruled 6-3.

The victory for inmates was partly symbolic. Alabama was the only state to use "hitching posts" in recent years and it has ended the punishments.

But the ruling halts a string of Supreme Court decisions that shielded prison officials from inmate lawsuits. Justices seemed disgusted with treatment of an inmate who claims he was twice chained to an outdoor pole in 1995 and denied food and water as punishment for fighting while assigned to a chain gang.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, said the practice "unnecessarily and wantonly inflicted pain."

The practice was reviewed as part of the broader question of when guards may be sued.

Stevens said officers should have known that the treatment was unconstitutional, and thus can be sued by former inmate Larry Hope.

In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said traditional state immunity "has been turned on its head." He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia.

Hope claims he was not allowed to sit or move more than a few inches from the pole, while his arms were chained at head level. He was left once for seven hours without a bathroom break.

Guards removed his shirt and taunted him by bringing a bucket of water which instead was given to prison dogs and poured at his feet, Hope said, and part of his experience was photographed by national news media.

The chest-high metal bars with rings attached were used periodically in Alabama prisons for years, but came into widespread use when championed by former Gov. Fob James. James also instituted chain gangs, and the poles were used to penalize inmates who refused to work.

"It's important for the Supreme Court to occasionally send a shot across the bow to state prisons," said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. "It does send a message that the Supreme Court will continue to monitor prison conditions and has not abandoned this area."

Law enforcement officers generally enjoy what is called qualified immunity from lawsuits, unless their conduct violates the Constitution or established law. At issue is how officers would know that their conduct was illegal or unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court turned back arguments from Alabama and 16 other states which contend that officials cannot be expected to know how rulings in previous cases might bear on a current situation.

In the dissent, Thomas said the simple question for the court was whether it was clearly established in 1995 that using a restraining bar violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments.

"The answer to this question is also simple: Obviously not," he wrote.

But Stevens, writing for the majority, said: "The obvious cruelty inherent in this practice should have provided (guards) with some notice that their alleged conduct violated Hope's constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment."

Stevens said Hope "was treated in a way antithetical to human dignity -- he was hitched to a post for an extended period of time in a position that was painful, and under circumstances that were both degrading and dangerous."

In 1998, a federal judge found that hitching posts were unconstitutional as they were used in Alabama but told the state it could try to devise a more humane application of the punishment. The state abandoned pole punishments.

The high court has sided against inmates in several cases this year. Justices said jailed sex offenders could lose visitation and recreation privileges if they won't admit all past sexual assaults to counselors. The court also ruled that inmates who claim they were abused must use an internal prison complaint system before filing a lawsuit.

In a third case, the court ruled that federal inmates housed in private prisons or halfway houses cannot sue the operating companies for damages over civil rights violations.

The case is Hope v. Pelzer, 01-309.