Farmer v. Brennan

Citation511 U.S. 825
Decision Date06 June 1994
Docket NumberNo. 92-7247.,92-7247.
PartiesFARMER v. BRENNAN, WARDEN, et al.
CourtUnited States Supreme Court



Souter, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Blackmun, Stevens, O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined. Blackmun, J., post, p. 851, and Stevens, J., post, p. 858, filed concurring opinions. Thomas, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 858.

Elizabeth Alexander argued the cause for petitioner. With her on the briefs were Alvin J. Bronstein, by appointment of the Court, 510 U. S. 941, and Steven R. Shapiro.

Deputy Solicitor General Bender argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Assistant Attorney General Hunger, Amy L. Wax, Barbara L. Herwig, and Robert M. Loeb.*

Justice Souter, delivered the opinion of the Court.

A prison official's "deliberate indifference" to a substantial risk of serious harm to an inmate violates the Eighth Amendment. See Helling v. McKinney 509 U. S. 25 (1993); Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U. S. 294 (1991); Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U. S. 97 (1976). This case requires us to define the term "deliberate indifference," as we do by requiring a showing that the official was subjectively aware of the risk.


The dispute before us stems from a civil suit brought by petitioner, Dee Farmer, alleging that respondents, federal prison officials, violated the Eighth Amendment by their deliberate indifference to petitioner's safety. Petitioner, who is serving a federal sentence for credit card fraud, has been diagnosed by medical personnel of the Bureau of Prisons as a transsexual, one who has "a rare psychiatric disorder in which a person feels persistently uncomfortable about his or her anatomical sex," and who typically seeks medical treatment, including hormonal therapy and surgery, to bring about a permanent sex change. American Medical Association, Encyclopedia of Medicine 1006 (1989); see also American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 74-75 (3d rev. ed. 1987). For several years before being convicted and sentenced in 1986 at the age of 18, petitioner, who is biologically male, wore women's clothing (as petitioner did at the 1986 trial), underwent estrogen therapy, received silicone breast implants, and submitted to unsuccessful "black market" testicle-removal surgery. See Farmer v. Haas, 990 F. 2d 319, 320 (CA7 1993). Petitioner's precise appearance in prison is unclear from the record before us, but petitioner claims to have continued hormonal treatment while incarcerated by using drugs smuggled into prison, and apparently wears clothing in a feminine manner, as by displaying a shirt "off one shoulder," App. 112. The parties agree that petitioner "projects feminine characteristics." Id. , at 51, 74.

The practice of federal prison authorities is to incarcerate preoperative transsexuals with prisoners of like biological sex, see Farmer v. Haas, supra, at 320, and over time authorities housed petitioner in several federal facilities, sometimes in the general male prison population but more often in segregation. While there is no dispute that petitioner was segregated at least several times because of violations of prison rules, neither is it disputed that in at least one penitentiary petitioner was segregated because of safety concerns. See Farmer v. Carlson, 685 F. Supp. 1335, 1342 (MD Pa. 1988).

On March 9, 1989, petitioner was transferred for disciplinary reasons from the Federal Correctional Institute in Oxford, Wisconsin (FCI-Oxford), to the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana (USP-Terre Haute). Though the record before us is unclear about the security designations of the two prisons in 1989, penitentiaries are typically higher security facilities that house more troublesome prisoners than federal correctional institutes. See generally Federal Bureau of Prisons, Facilities 1990. After an initial stay in administrative segregation, petitioner was placed in the USP-Terre Haute general population. Petitioner voiced no objection to any prison official about the transfer to the penitentiary or to placement in its general population. Within two weeks, according to petitioner's allegations, petitioner was beaten and raped by another inmate in petitioner's cell. Several days later, after petitioner claims to have reported the incident, officials returned petitioner to segregation to await, according to respondents, a hearing about petitioner's HIV-positive status.

Acting without counsel, petitioner then filed a Bivens complaint, alleging a violation of the Eighth Amendment. See Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U. S. 388 (1971); Carlson v. Green, 446 U. S. 14 (1980). As defendants, petitioner named respondents: the warden of USP-Terre Haute and the Director of the Bureau of Prisons (sued only in their official capacities); the warden of FCI-Oxford and a case manager there; and the Director of the Bureau of Prisons North Central Region Office and an official in that office (sued in their official and personal capacities). As later amended, the complaint alleged that respondents either transferred petitioner to USP-Terre Haute or placed petitioner in its general population despite knowledge that the penitentiary had a violent environment and a history of inmate assaults, and despite knowledge that petitioner, as a transsexual who "projects feminine characteristics," would be particularly vulnerable to sexual attack by some USPTerre Haute inmates. This allegedly amounted to a deliberately indifferent failure to protect petitioner's safety, and thus to a violation of petitioner's Eighth Amendment rights. Petitioner sought compensatory and punitive damages, and an injunction barring future confinement in any penitentiary, including USP-Terre Haute.1

Respondents filed a motion for summary judgment supported by several affidavits, to which petitioner responded with an opposing affidavit and a cross-motion for summary judgment; petitioner also invoked Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(f), asking the court to delay its ruling until respondents had complied with petitioner's pending request for production of documents. Respondents then moved for a protective order staying discovery until resolution of the issue of qualified immunity, raised in respondents' summary judgment motion.

Without ruling on respondents' request to stay discovery, the District Court denied petitioner's Rule 56(f) motion and granted summary judgment to respondents, concluding that there had been no deliberate indifference to petitioner's safety. The failure of prison officials to prevent inmate assaults violates the Eighth Amendment, the court stated, only if prison officials were "reckless in a criminal sense," meaning that they had "actual knowledge" of a potential danger. App. 124. Respondents, however, lacked the requisite knowledge, the court found. "Petitioner never expressed any concern for his safety to any of respondents. Since respondents had no knowledge of any potential danger to petitioner, they were not deliberately indifferent to his safety." Ibid.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit summarily affirmed without opinion. We granted certiorari, 510 U. S. 811 (1993), because Courts of Appeals had adopted inconsistent tests for "deliberate indifference." Compare, for example, McGill v. Duckworth, 944 F. 2d 344, 348 (CA7 1991) (holding that "deliberate indifference" requires a "subjective standard of recklessness"), cert. denied, 503 U. S. 907 (1992), with Young v. Quinlan, 960 F. 2d 351, 360-361 (CA3 1992) ("A prison official is deliberately indifferent when he knows or should have known of a sufficiently serious danger to an inmate").


The Constitution "does not mandate comfortable prisons," Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U. S. 337, 349 (1981), but neither does it permit inhumane ones, and it is now settled that "the treatment a prisoner receives in prison and the conditions under which he is confined are subject to scrutiny under the Eighth Amendment," Helling, 509 U. S., at 31. In its prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments," the Eighth Amendment places restraints on prison officials, who may not, for example, use excessive physical force against prisoners. See Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U. S. 1 (1992). The Amendment also imposes duties on these officials, who must provide humane conditions of confinement; prison officials must ensure that inmates receive adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, and must "take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates," Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U. S. 517, 526-527 (1984). See Helling, supra, at 31-32; Washington v. Harper, 494 U. S. 210, 225 (1990); Estelle, 429 U. S., at 103. Cf. DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Servs., 489 U. S. 189, 198-199 (1989).

In particular, as the lower courts have uniformly held, and as we have assumed, "prison officials have a duty . . . to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners." Cortes-Quinones v. Jimenez-Nettleship, 842 F. 2d 556, 558 (CA1) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted), cert. denied, 488 U. S. 823 (1988);2 see also Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U. S., at 303 (describing "the protection an inmate is afforded against other inmates" as a "condition of confinement" subject to the strictures of the Eighth Amendment). Having incarcerated "persons with demonstrated proclivities for antisocial criminal, and often violent, conduct," Hudson v. Palmer, supra, at 526, having stripped them of virtually every means of self-protection and foreclosed their access to outside aid, the government and its officials are not free to let the state of nature take its course. Cf. DeShaney, supra, at 199-200; Estelle , supra, at 103-104. Prison conditions may...

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