501 U.S. 294 (1991), 89-7376, Wilson v. Seiter

Docket Nº:No. 89-7376
Citation:501 U.S. 294, 111 S.Ct. 2321, 115 L.Ed.2d 271, 59 U.S.L.W. 4671
Party Name:Wilson v. Seiter
Case Date:June 17, 1991
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 294

501 U.S. 294 (1991)

111 S.Ct. 2321, 115 L.Ed.2d 271, 59 U.S.L.W. 4671

Wilson

v.

Seiter

No. 89-7376

United States Supreme Court

June 17, 1991

Argued Jan. 7, 1991

Syllabus

Petitioner Wilson, an Ohio prison inmate, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against respondents, state prison officials, alleging that certain conditions of his confinement constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. His affidavits described the challenged conditions and charged that the authorities, after notification, had failed to take remedial action. The District Court granted summary judgment for respondents, and the Court of Appeals affirmed on the ground, inter alia, that the affidavits failed to establish the requisite culpable state of mind on the part of respondents.

Held:

1. A prisoner claiming that the conditions of his confinement violate the Eighth Amendment must show a culpable state of mind on the part of prison officials. See, e.g., Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319. Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, distinguished. An intent requirement is implicit in that Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Wilson's suggested distinction between "short-term" or "one-time" prison conditions (in which a state of mind requirement would apply) and "continuing" or "systemic" conditions (where official state of mind would be irrelevant) is rejected. Pp. 296-302.

2. The "deliberate indifference" standard applied in Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106, to claims involving medical care applies generally to prisoner challenges to conditions of confinement. There is no merit to respondents' contention that that standard should be applied only in cases involving personal, physical injury, and that a malice standard is appropriate in cases challenging conditions. As Whitley teaches, the "wantonness" of conduct depends not on its effect on the prisoner, but on the constraints facing the official. Pp. 302-304.

3. The Court of Appeals erred in failing to consider Wilson's claims under the "deliberate indifference" standard and applying instead a standard of "behavior marked by persistent malicious cruelty." It is possible that the error was harmless, since the court said that Wilson's affidavits established "[a]t best . . . negligence." Conceivably, however, the court would have reached a different disposition under the correct

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standard, and so the case is remanded for reconsideration on that basis. Pp. 304-306.

893 F.2d 861 (CA6 1990), vacated and remanded.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O'CONNOR, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 306.

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SCALIA, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the questions whether a prisoner claiming that conditions of confinement constitute cruel and unusual punishment must show a culpable state of mind on the part of prison officials and, if so, what state of mind is required.

Petitioner Pearly L. Wilson is a felon incarcerated at the Hocking Correctional Facility (HCF) in Nelsonville, Ohio. Alleging that a number of the conditions of his confinement constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, he brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against respondents Richard P. Seiter, then Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, and Carl Humphreys, then warden of HCF. The complaint alleged overcrowding, excessive noise, insufficient locker storage space, inadequate heating and cooling, improper ventilation, unclean and inadequate restrooms, unsanitary dining facilities and food preparation, and housing with mentally and physically ill inmates. Petitioner sought declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as $900,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. App. 2-9, 53-54, 62-63.

The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment with supporting affidavits. Petitioner's affidavits described the challenged conditions and charged that the authorities, after notification, had failed to take remedial action. Respondents' affidavits denied that some of the alleged conditions existed, and described efforts by prison officials to improve the others.

The District Court granted summary judgment for respondents. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed, 893 F.2d 861 (1990), and we granted certiorari 498 U.S. 808 (1990).

I

The Eighth Amendment, which applies to the States through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,

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Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660, 666 (1962), prohibits the infliction of "cruel and unusual punishments" on those convicted of crimes. In Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976), we first acknowledged that the provision could be applied to some deprivations that were not specifically part of the sentence but were suffered during imprisonment. We rejected, however, the inmate's claim in that case that prison doctors had inflicted cruel and unusual punishment by inadequately attending to his medical needs -- because he had failed to establish that they possessed a sufficiently culpable state of mind. Since, we said, only the "`unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain'" implicates the Eighth Amendment, id. at 104 (quoting Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 173 (1976) (joint opinion) (emphasis added)), a prisoner advancing such a claim must, at a minimum, allege "deliberate indifference" to his "serious" medical needs. 429 U.S. at 106. "It is only such indifference" that can violate the Eighth Amendment, ibid. (emphasis added); allegations of "inadvertent failure to provide adequate medical care," id. at 105, or of a "negligent . . . diagnos[is]," id. at 106, simply fail to establish the requisite culpable state of mind.

Estelle relied in large measure on an earlier case, Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459 (1947), which involved not a prison deprivation but an effort to subject a prisoner to a second electrocution after the first attempt failed by reason of a malfunction in the electric chair. There Justice Reed, writing for a plurality of the Court, emphasized that the Eighth Amendment prohibited "the wanton infliction of pain," id. at 463 (emphasis added). Because the first attempt had been thwarted by an "unforeseeable accident," the officials lacked the culpable state of mind necessary for the punishment to be regarded as "cruel," regardless of the actual suffering inflicted.

The situation of the unfortunate victim of this accident is just as though he had suffered the identical amount of mental anguish and physical pain in any other occurrence, such as, for example, a fire in the cell

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block.

Id. at 464. Justice Frankfurter, concurring solely on the basis of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, emphasized that the first attempt had failed because of "an innocent misadventure," id. at 470, and suggested that he might reach a different conclusion in "a hypothetical situation, [111 S.Ct. 2324] which assumes a series of abortive attempts at electrocution or even a single, cruelly willful attempt," id. at 471.

After Estelle, we next confronted an Eighth Amendment challenge to a prison deprivation in Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337 (1981). In that case, inmates at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility contended that the lodging of two inmates in a single cell ("double celling") constituted cruel and unusual punishment. We rejected that contention, concluding that it amounts "[a]t most . . . to a theory that double celling inflicts pain," id. at 348-349, but not that it constitutes the "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" that violates the Eighth Amendment, id. at 346. The Constitution, we said, "does not mandate comfortable prisons," id. at 349, and only those deprivations denying "the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities," id. at 347, are sufficiently grave to form the basis of an Eighth Amendment violation.

Our holding in Rhodes turned on the objective component of an Eighth Amendment prison claim (was the deprivation sufficiently serious?), and we did not consider the subjective component (did the officials act with a sufficiently culpable state of mind?). That Rhodes had not eliminated the subjective component was made clear by our next relevant case, Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312 (1986). There an inmate shot by a guard during an attempt to quell a prison disturbance contended that he had been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. We stated:

After incarceration, only the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain . . . constitutes cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth Amendment. To be cruel and unusual punishment, conduct that does not

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purport to be punishment at all must involve more than ordinary lack of due care for the prisoner's interests or safety. . . . It is obduracy and wantonness, not inadvertence or error in good faith, that characterize the conduct prohibited by the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, whether that conduct occurs in connection with establishing conditions of confinement, supplying medical needs, or restoring official control over a tumultuous cellblock.

Id. at 319 (emphasis added; citations omitted; internal quotations omitted).

These cases mandate inquiry into a prison official's state of mind when it is claimed that the official has inflicted cruel and unusual punishment.[1] See also Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 398 (1989). [111 S.Ct. 2325] Petitioner concedes that this is so with respect to some claims of cruel and unusual prison conditions.

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He...

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