Violation of Constitutional Rights in Prisons?

While prisoners may have lost their right to freedom based on their crime and conviction, they still retain the same fundamental constitutional rights that free citizens do, with few exceptions.  The exceptions involve rights that would conflict with the prison system’s ability to safely, effectively and efficiently run the institution, those that would risk the safety of prison staff, the public or other inmates, and any right that is in opposition to the basic prisoner status, and governmental interests of the state.  The three governmental interests that have been defined as establishing a necessity to curtail inmates’ rights are: “maintenance of internal order and discipline; securing the institution against unauthorized access or escape; and rehabilitation of prisoners” (delCarmen, Ritter, & Witt, 2005, p. 4).

When prisoners feel their constitutional rights have been violated they first need to attempt to address the issue through administrative channels at the institution they are housed at.  This requirement was mandated by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) passed in April 1996 in attempts to reduce the number of Section 1983 lawsuits filed in federal court.  If administrative remedies do not satisfactorily solve the prisoner’s dilemma then the prisoner has the right to file a Section 1983 lawsuit in federal court.  The purpose of a § 1983 lawsuit is to “improve prison or jail conditions and/or obtain monetary damages from prison officials”.  If the suit succeeds, case law will set precedent that will not only better things for the prisoner filing the lawsuit but for all prisoners, as the new case law will set new exacting standards on prison conditions and/or the treatment of inmates in regards to various issues. (delCarmen, Ritter, & Witt, 2005).

Case law throughout the years has specified specific constitutional rights that cannot be denied to inmates, as well as other constitutional rights that can be curtailed.  The general criterion that is used to determine whether a specific policy within an institution may or may not violate a prisoner’s rights involves asking a simple question: Does the policy that restricts the inmate’s right serve a legitimate penological interest?  If so, then the policy will not be deemed unconstitutional even if it essentially diminishes a particular constitutional right for the inmate.  In Turner v. Safley (1987), the Court defined four tests to determine if a jail or prison policy was valid (delCarmen, Ritter, & Witt, 2005, p. 9):

  1. whether there is a valid, rational connection between the regulation and the legitimate government interest put forward to justify it;
  2. whether there are alternative means of exercising the right that remain open to prisoners;
  3. the impact that accommodation of the asserted right will have on correctional officers and inmates, and on the allocation of prison resources generally; and
  4. The existence of ready alternatives to the regulation.

If an institutional policy passes the above four tests, then the inmate’s constitutional rights may be denied.  While individuals in the custody of the state do retain many of their constitutional rights, the same rights provided to law-abiding citizens, many of these rights have been diminished based on case law which has declared various penological interests as taking precedence to the rights of inmates. (delCarmen, Ritter, & Witt, 2005).

Case Scenario

An offender was sentenced for two years for his third grand theft, and was moved to a state prison. During his second week, he was subjected to abuse and humiliation—hazing—from some other prisoners. This treatment continued unchecked, so he informed prison guards on two separate occasions of the abuse during his third week. The prison guards ignored his complaints because they did not want to upset the customary prison ritual of older prisoners scaring the new ones. The guards assumed that he would eventually fit into the prison culture.

However, his complaints led to him being beaten up by other prisoners. He pleaded with a prison guard to transfer him to another wing in the prison because of the continued abuse he was receiving. The authorities denied his request. He was ultimately raped and beaten, repeatedly by several prisoners, over a span of two weeks before being transferred. He also contracted two sexually transmitted diseases during the assaults. Subsequently, he brought a suit against the state for cruel and unusual punishment.

Deliberate Indifference

Deliberate indifference is a phrase coined by the Supreme Court in Estelle v. Gamble (1976) and has been used since in many different cases.  Depending on the type of case being referred to, the meaning of “deliberate indifference” can vary.  In conditions-of-confinement cases, such as the case scenario above, it essentially means a “culpable state of mind”; however, it can also mean “obduracy and wantonness” in deadly use of force cases, “using force maliciously and sadistically to cause pain” in non-deadly use of force cases, and the “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” in medical cases (delCarmen, Ritter, & Witt, 2005, p. 99).

Wilson v. Seiter (1991) states that, “Deliberate indifference is required for liability in conditions-of-confinement cases.  In conditions-of-confinement cases under § 1983, deliberate indifference means a ‘culpable state of mind’ on the part of prison officials.” (delCarmen, Ritter, & Witt, 2005, p. 15).  Essentially, what this means is that prisoners have to be able to prove ill intent by the official or institution that they are filing a claim against–negligence is not enough; the official has to have willfully and knowingly, with ill intent or indifference, caused damage to the prisoner.  Needless to say, this makes it very difficult for inmates to succeed in conditions-of-confinement cases. (delCarmen, Ritter, & Witt, 2005).

In the scenario presented above, the inmate’s plight began with the guards having no ill intent in not transferring the inmate, nor did they “know” that the inmate would be harmed.  If the harm that befell the inmate had occurred over one evening, followed by a transfer once the guards realized the inmate had suffered rape and other injuries, then based on Wilson v. Seiter (1991), there is a good possibility that the inmate’s suit would not succeed.  However, the scenario states that “He was ultimately raped and beaten repeatedly by several prisoners over a span of two weeks before being transferred.”  The length of exposure to this abuse eliminates the possibility of the guards claiming they did not “know” the inmate was in danger.  Allowing this abuse to continue against the inmate for a period of two weeks implies deliberate indifference on the part of these guards.  The inmate would more than likely have a successful § 1983 suit against the guards and the prison.  Of course, before filing his § 1983 suit he would have to exhaust all administrative remedies first in order that his suit is not dismissed by the Court (a requirement of the PLRA discussed above).

The guards, being official employees of a state prison, can be personally held responsible for the harm caused to the prisoner.  While state employees acting “under color of law” retain qualified immunity, meaning they cannot be sued for “doing their job”, they do not have absolute immunity.  In cases of deliberate indifference toward an inmate which causes harm to the inmate, the prison guards can be held personally responsible for their negligent actions.  If the guards had notified their superiors about the situation and were ordered not to transfer the inmate, essentially making the negligent decision their superiors and not their own, then it is doubtful that the prison guards would be held personally responsible, but outside of that possibility, the prison guards would be personally responsible for their actions or inaction.  The inmate in this scenario would probably win not only an award of compensatory damages but punitive damages as well, as set by precedent in Smith v. Wade (1983). (delCarmen, Ritter, & Witt, 2005).

Farmer v. Brennan

This scenario is similar to Farmer v. Brennan (1994) which states, “A prison official is not liable under the Eighth Amendment for injury inflicted on an inmate by other inmates ‘unless the official knows of and disregards an excessive risk of harm to an inmate’.  It is not enough for liability that ‘the risk was so obvious that a reasonable person should have noticed it.”  (delCarmen, Ritter, & Witt, 2005, p. 115).  It should not be hard for the inmate’s counsel to establish that the prison guards in the case scenario “knew and disregarded” an excessive risk of harm to the inmate–he was raped and harassed over a two week period after the guards had already been made aware of his hazing by the other inmates.

City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris et al. (1989)

Canton v. Harris (1989) answered the question: Can a municipality be held liable under 42 USC § 1983 for constitutional violations resulting from its failure to train municipal employees?  The Court said yes.  In this particular case, the scenario involved failure by police officers to provide medical assistance for Harris after her arrest, rather than a scenario involving prisons.  (ACLU, 2009).  However, it can be safely assumed that a jail or prison could also be held responsible for constitutional violations against an inmate due to the institution failing to properly train its correctional officers.  In the case scenario, it is possible that the prison guards could claim that they did not “know” there was serious risk to the inmate, but if that is accepted as true then prosecution could easily argue that the prison guards should have known and that their ignorance in this scenario is due to “gross failure” to train on the part of the institution.  In that case, the institution would be held liable for not training its officers properly so that they could determine when an inmate was in grave harm.

Barriers to Filing Suit

Due to a massive increase in the number of § 1983 claims filed by inmates, legislation has attempted to curtail the clogging of the court systems with these claims in various ways.  One of these ways was already discussed: the passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) in 1996 which creates several requirements (or barriers) that inmates must meet before they can file a § 1983 claim in federal court.  These include: “the exhaustion of administrative remedies before inmates can file a lawsuit in federal court under Section 1983; a filing fee of $150 on every case an inmate files, unless the inmate is indigent; limiting attorney’s fees to 150% of the hourly rate established for court-appointed attorney’s; and the screening of inmate filings and the dismissal of frivolous or malicious lawsuits that fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” (delCarmen, Ritter, & Witt, 2005, p. 7).

With respect to the case scenario, the inmate will face the above barriers before he can file a § 1983 case in federal court.  First, he will have to exhaust all administrative remedies set up by the institution.  This may, in fact, be the toughest barrier for the inmate to traverse.  In addition, once all administrative remedies have been exhausted, if he still wishes to file suit he will need to prepare the proper paperwork and come up with $150 to file it.  This can be difficult for an inmate to do with limited job opportunities and low wages.  If the inmate can prove indigence, the filing fee will be waived; however, proving indigence may be a barrier in and of itself.

Stop Prison Rape

The inmate can seek help from organizations like Stop Prison Rape (SPR).  SPR, now known as Just Detention International (JDI), is a “national human rights organization that seeks to end sexual violence in all forms of detention” (Just Detention International, Inc., 2010).  JDI includes the following goals in their mission statement: “to ensure government accountability for prisoner rape; to transform ill-informed public attitudes about sexual violence in detention; and to promote access to resources for those who have survived this form of abuse.” (Just Detention International, Inc., 2010).  In addition to being instrumental in the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003, JDI has many services and programs to assist inmates such as the inmate from our case scenario.

Strengthening & Weakening the Case

The inmate in our scenario could not strengthen his claim by stating that a reasonable person would have noticed the risk to the victim.  As mentioned above in review of Farmer v. Brennan, “It is not enough for liability that ‘the risk was so obvious that a reasonable person should have noticed it.”  (delCarmen, Ritter, & Witt, 2005, p. 115).  In addition, the inmate has to show that the prison guards knowingly and with ill-intent or indifference caused the injury or harm.

Ironically, Farmer v. Brennan (1994), discussed previously, could be used to both strengthen and weaken the inmate’s case.  The inmate’s case can be strengthened, by focusing on the fact that the inmate was abused and assaulted for a period of two weeks after having already informed the prison guards of “hazing” abuse against him by other inmates and requesting a transfer.  As previously stated, it would be difficult for the prison guards to claim ignorance to the suffering the inmate experienced during those two weeks–it wasn’t a one-time thing… he was abused again and again over a two-week period.

The victim’s case could be weakened by the defense, however, by claiming that Farmer v. Brennan (1994) specifically sets precedent that a prison official is not responsible for injury or harm caused to an inmate by another inmate unless it can be proven that “the official knows of and disregards an excessive risk of harm to an inmate” (delCarmen, Ritter, & Witt, 2005, p. 115). Defense could argue that the prison guards were informed only of “hazing” concerns and that this behavior was standard toward new inmates in the institution, citing no previous incident of harm or injury being reported by inmates who had previously endured this hazing.  Since a situation such as this had never arisen in the past due to hazing rituals, the Defense could argue that there was no way that the prison guards could have “known” that the inmate would suffer these assaults.  Defense would also have to be able to prove that at no time during the two-week period in which these assaults were occurring, were the prison guards aware of any abuse above “hazing” (they were not cognizant of any serious physical or sexual abuse).


Case law has set many precedents that provide us with guidelines in many situations, and even specific tests to determine when an action or policy would be considered unconstitutional, and yet there are many cases that still leave professionals, and scholars alike, debating on what the outcome of the case would be if decided by the Supreme Court.  This is perhaps one of those situations especially with only the information provided in the brief case scenario.  The ruling would come down to whether the courts believed the prison guards knew of the ongoing assaults against the victim and still refused to transfer him.  If the courts could be persuaded that the prison guards did not knowingly leave the victim in a dangerous situation and were unaware of the abuse he suffered over the two-week period, then the inmate’s suit will fail, since prison officials are not responsible for harm caused to an inmate by another inmate unless they were aware of the danger and did nothing to prevent it.  On the other hand, if the court believes that the officers were aware of the danger to the inmate, and for unknown reasons chose to leave the victim in the situation as opposed to transferring him, then the victim’s suit would succeed.

Works Cited

ACLU. (2009, December 23). City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris et al. Retrieved March 16, 2010, from

delCarmen, R. V., Ritter, S. E., & Witt, B. A. (2005). Briefs of Leading Cases in Corrections. Albany: Lexis Nexis.

Just Detention International, Inc. (2010). Mission Statement. Retrieved March 16, 2010, from Just Detention International:



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