U.S. Supreme Court Cases

This collection of U.S. Supreme Court decisions relevant to solitary confinement was compiled and annotated by Solitary Watch Research Associates Daniel H. Goldman and Ryan Brimmer, students at the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse, Washington & Lee University School of Law.

1. Pervear v. Commonwealth, 72 U.S. 475 (1866)

a. 8th Amendment applies only to federal legislation; not yet incorporated against the States.

2. In re Medley, 134 U.S. 160 (1890)

a. Finds Colorado statute specifying solitary confinement prior to execution unconstitutional under ex post facto prohibition.

b. “It seems to us that the considerations which we have here suggested show that the solitary confinement to which the prisoner was subjected by the statute of Colorado of 1889, and by the judgment of the court in pursuance of that statute, was an additional punishment of the most important and painful character, and is, therefore, forbidden by this [ex post facto] provision of the Constitution of the United States.” 134 U.S. 160, 171 (1890).

3. In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436 (1890)

a. Holds that 8th Amendment is incorporated against the states, and that electrocution does not violate 8th Amendment.

4. McElvaine v. Brush, 142 U.S. 155 (1891)

a. Court rejects a direct 8th Amendment challenge to electrocution and solitary confinement by deferring to the New York legislature’s judgment.

5. O’Neil v. Vermont, 144 U.S. 323 (1898)

a. As a Federal question, the 8th Amendment of the U. S. Constitution does not apply to the states.

6. Weems v. U.S., 217 U.S. 349 (1910)

a. Establishes the proportionality principle under 8th.

b. “What constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment has not been exactly decided. It has been said that ordinarily the terms imply something inhuman and barbarous, torture and the like. McDonald v. Commonwealth, 173 Massachusetts, 322. The court, however, in that case conceded the possibility “that imprisonment in the State prison for a long term of years might be so disproportionate to the offense as to constitute a cruel and unusual punishment.” Other cases have selected certain tyrannical acts of the English monarchs as illustrating the meaning of the clause and the extent of its prohibition.” P. 359

c. “Time works changes, brings into existence new conditions and purposes. Therefore a principle, to be vital, must be capable of wider application than the mischief which gave it birth.” (373)

d. “With power in a legislature great, if not unlimited, to give criminal character to the actions of men, with power unlimited to fix terms of imprisonment with what accompaniments they might, what more potent instrument of cruelty  [*373]  could be put into the hands of power? And it was believed that power might be tempted to cruelty.”

7. Louisiana ex. rel. Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459 (1947)

a. 5-4 decision upholding Louisiana’s “double execution.”

b. Arguably incorporates the 8th Amendment against the States, though doing so in upholding the state court’s decision.

c. Frankfurter’s concurrence at page 471: punishment that is “repugnant to the conscience of mankind” is cruel and unusual (quoting Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 323 (1937)).

d. Burton’s dissent (joined by Douglas, Murphy, and Rutledge)

8. Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86 (1958)

 a. “The basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man. While the State has the power to punish, the Amendment stands  [**598]  to assure that this power be exercised within the limits of civilized standards. Fines, imprisonment and even execution may be imposed depending upon the enormity of the crime, but any technique outside the bounds of these traditional penalties is constitutionally suspect. This Court has had little occasion to give precise content to the Eighth Amendment, and, in an enlightened democracy such as ours, this is not surprising. But when the Court was confronted with a punishment of 12 years in irons at hard and painful labor imposed for the crime of falsifying public records, it did not hesitate to declare that the penalty was cruel in its excessiveness and unusual in its character. Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349. The Court recognized in that case that the words of the Amendment are not precise, 32 and that their  [*101]  scope is not static. The Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” (100-101)

9. U.S. v. Muniz, 374 U.S. 150 (1963)

a. Federal inmates can bring FTCA actions against prison personnel, but only for nondiscretionary acts.

10. Rudolph v. Alabama, 375 U.S. 889 (1963)

a. Goldberg’s dissent from denial of certiorari (joined by Brennan and Douglas) argues that the evolving standards of decency test developed in Trop makes capital punishment an 8th violation. He looks to foreign jurisdictions, scholarly press, court decision, and public opinion polls.

1. Despite this being a dissent from refusal to grant cert, the Court eventually adopted Goldberg’s position in Coker v. Georgia, when it finally outlawed execution for rape in 1977.

11. Cooper v. Pate, 378 U.S. 546 (1964)

a. State prisoners can bring suit against prison officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

12. Brooks v. Florida, 389 U.S. 413 (1967)

a. 9-0 per curiam opinion reversing convictions for rioting that were tortured out of prisoners by use of solitary confinement and other measures.

13. Holt v. Sarver, 309 F.Supp. 362 (E.D. Ark. 1970)

a. The entire prison farm system in Arkansas is found to be unconstitutional.

b. “Confinement itself may amount to cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Constitution where confinement is characterized by conditions and practices so bad as to be shocking to the conscience of a reasonably civilized people.” (373)

14. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519 (1972)

a. Prisoner suits must not be dismissed unless it appears “beyond a reasonable doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.” (521)

i. Powell took no part in the decision

15. Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972)

a. Declaring the death penalty unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment for being applied arbitrarily and often according to racial bias.

16. Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475 (1973)

a. § 1983 suits are proper remedy for conditions of confinement suits but not for length or fact of incarceration claims (which must be charged under habeas corpus).

17. Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974)

a. Establishes minimum procedural due process requirements for prison disciplinary hearings.

b. “Lawful imprisonment necessarily makes unavailable many rights and privileges of the ordinary citizen, a “retraction justified by the considerations underlying our penal system.” Price v. Johnston, 334 U.S. 266, 285 (1948).But though his rights may be diminished by the needs and exigencies of the institutional environment, a prisoner is not wholly stripped of constitutional protections when he is imprisoned for crime.” (p. 555)

c. “There must be mutual accommodation between institutional needs and objectives and the provisions of the Constitution.” (556)

d. “There is no iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country.” (555-6)

e. Although in parole and probation revocation hearings, procedural requirements include written notice of violation, disclosure of evidence, and opportunity to be heard in person and to present witnesses, the right to cross-examine adverse witnesses, a neutral and detached hearing body, a written statement by the fact finders regarding the evidence relied on in making the decision, and a limited right to counsel, all that’s required in disciplinary hearings regarding good-time credits and solitary confinement is:

i. Advance written notice of the claimed violation and

ii. Written statement of the fact finder’s evidence.

f. Court also held that prisoners should be able to present evidence and call witnesses as long as it’s not “unduly hazardous to institutional safety or correctional goals.” (566)

g. White justified not providing more procedural rights by saying it would “inevitably give the proceedings a more adversary case and tend to reduce their utility as a means to further correctional goals.” (570)

h. A hearing board composed entirely of prison officials is “sufficiently impartial to satisfy the Due Process Clause.” 571

i. Marshall’s concurrence/dissent argues “that an accused inmate’s right to present witnesses and submit other evidence in his defense is constitutionally protected . . . and judicially enforceable.” (583).

j. Rights to cross-examination and confrontation are fundamental rights and are especially important in the prison setting, as is the right to counsel (though he hedges by saying counsel could be a fellow inmate, a law student, or a correctional staff member).

18. Cox v. Cook, 420 U.S. 734 (1975)

19. Baxter v. Palmigiano, (1976)

a. Prisoners have no right to counsel or to remain silent during disciplinary hearings.

b. Re-characterizes Wolff as stating that written reasons for denying cross-examination or confrontation are useful but not required during disciplinary hearings.

20. Meachum v. Fano, 427 U.S. 215 (1976)

a. Due process challenge by prisoners transfered to less desirable living conditions in a max-security prison without having received a written statement of evidence.

b. The Court found that because the inmates had no property interest or right to stay in the first prison, the transfer to a harsher facility did not violate due process.

c. Once a criminal defendant is convicted, there ceases to exist a liberty interest to the extent that a state “may confine him and subject him to the rules of its prison system so long as the conditions of confinement do not otherwise violate the Constitution.” (224)

d. Due Process does not protect prisoners from being transferred between prisons, despite the conditions being far worse.

e. Justice Powell found that the stripped down disciplinary hearing was adequate as “a punishment proceeding for a serious crime.”

f. Stevens, in dissent, wrote: “I think it clear that even the inmate retains an unalienable interest in liberty—at the very minimum the right to be treated with dignity—which the Constitution may never ignore.” (233)

21. Montayne v. Haymes, 427 U.S. 236 (1976)

a. Prisoners have no right against transfer to other facilities and no due process claims to procedural hearings, regardless of whether the transfer is for disciplinary reasons.

b. “As long as the conditions or degree of confinement to which the prisoner is subjected is within the sentence imposed upon him and is not otherwise violative of the Constitution, the Due Process Clause does not in itself subject an inmate’s treatment by prison authorities to judicial oversight.” (242)

22. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976)

a. “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” in violation of the 8th Amendment. (104)

b. Inmates must prove 1) deliberate ignorance or 2) intentional denial.

c. Note: Because the Court states that prison doctors are subject only to state tort negligence claims for their misdiagnoses, prison psychiatrists might hide behind the same reasoning for psych claims in solitary cases.

d. Stevens’ dissent argues that regardless of whether the conditions at Andersonville “were the product of design, negligence, or mere poverty, they were cruel and inhuman.” (117)

23. Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651 (1977)

a. Public school disciplinary case, but it’s cited by Powell in Rhodes for the statement that “Prison brutality is ‘part of the total punishment to which the individual is being subjected for his crime and, as such, is a proper subject for Eight Amendment scrutiny.” (669)(citing Ingraham v. Wright, 525 F.2d 909, 915 (5th Cir. 1976))

24. Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678 (1978) (High point in swing for prisoner protections)

a. 30 day judge-imposed cap on solitary confinement upheld, recognizing relevance of (1) duration and (2) conditions of solitary. (682)

b. SCOTUS officially acknowledges that solitary confinement represents a type of punishment and therefore was subject to Eighth Amendment standards.

25. Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979)

a. No constitutional grounds found for prohibiting double-celling in NY correctional facility.

26. Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337 (1981)

a. Double celling challenge rejected on grounds that although the practice could be shown to prove painful to prisoner, it did not violate the requirement for “minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.”

i. An important note distinguishing conditions at SCOF from the solitary cases is that here the inmates had daily access to large day rooms where they could congregate and recreate throughout the day.

ii. Overall, the description of the facilities and treatment is positive. The only real complaint is the double celling. It’s worth looking into Powell’s notes to see if the overall satisfactory nature of the prison led him to make the statements he does about prisons not needing to be comfortable. Would he have said the same about insanity-provoking solitary confinement cells? No real deprivations (347)

b.      The Court arrived at its decision because although it found overcrowding, it could not find any specific examples of harm to prisoners as a result.

c. Justice Powell wrote “The Constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons.” (347)

i. To the extent that prison conditions are “restrictive and even harsh, they are part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society.”

ii. This opinion sets a floor for cell conditions, though the floor is pretty low. After this decision, clean cells with working facilities will likely be found to meet the standard.

d. “Cruel and Unusual” are to be interpreted “in a flexible and dynamic manner.” Citing Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 171 (1976).

e. Points to Gregg v. Georgia for decisional basis drawn from objective indicia derived from history, the action of state legislatures, and the sentencing by juries.

27. Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517 (1984)

a. Prisoners have no reasonable expectation of privacy in their cells.

b. “society is not prepared to recognize as legitimate any subjective expectation of privacy that a prisoner might have in his prison cell.”

c. “The Fourth Amendment proscription against unreasonable searches does not apply within the confines o the prison cell.”

d. Stevens’s dissent argues with the majority’s reasoning regarding punitive goals. He argues that depriving prisoners of any expectation of privacy in their cells is contrary to institutional goals based on sociological findings that the depravation of individualism makes people more prone to violence against themselves and others.

28. Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312 (1986)

a. “It is obduracy and wantonness, not inadvertence or error in good faith, that characterize conduct prohibited by Eighth Amendment, whether that conduct occurs in connection with establishing conditions of confinement, supplying medical needs, or restoring official control over tumultuous cellblock.” (319)

b. Substantive Due Process offers inmates no protection beyond what they have under the 8th. (327)

29. Harmelin v. Michegan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991)

a. Life without parole not found disproportionate for PWID 650 grams coke.

b. Kennedy’s concurrence lays out the argument that the 8th at most prohibits grossly disproportionate sentences, but does not require strict proportionality between crime and sentence.

30. Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294 (1991)

a. In cases alleging cruel and unusual punishment, it is necessary to examine a prison official’s state of mind.

i. Not really a drastic change, though certainly a higher standard for prisoner plaintiffs to meet. State of mind can, however, be proven through repeated actions or patterns of behavior. Plaintiffs don’t actually have to look into the mindsets of prison officials.

b. Established two-prong test to determine whether prison-related punishments are cruel and unusual.

i. Objective component requires conditions (1) be sufficiently serious and (2) pose a substantial risk of serious harm.

ii. Subjective component requires showing that prison officials (1) were deliberately indifferent and (2) knew of and disregarded harm to prisoners.

(1) Justice White’s concurrence criticizes the majority for improperly requiring the subjective prong in prison conditions cases. He argues that it was only required for administrative action/inaction cases. He goes back to Hutto to show that all that’s required is a showing of “unquestioned serious deprivations of basic human needs.”

31. Hudson v. McMillan, 503 U.S. 1 (1992)

a. Blackmun’s concurrence sets out that the unnecessary pain prohibited by the 8th Amendment could include psychological as well as physical pain.

32. Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25 (1993)

a. Prison conditions may be found to be cruel and unusual when prison officials are deliberately indifferent to prisoner health and safety.

b. The Supreme Court has clearly ruled that the Eighth Amendment is not frozen so as to forbid only punishments seen as barbaric in 1789.

c. Second-hand smoke exposure could conceivably be a claim upon which relief could be granted, though the Court here remands for more evidentiary findings.

d. Court requires proof of both objective and subjective prongs.

e. Physical injury is not required to state a claim under the 8th.

33. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994)

a. A prison official’s deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to an inmate violates the Eighth Amendment. The term “deliberate indifference” requires a showing that the official was subjectively aware of the risk. (828)

34. Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472 (1995)

a. “The punishment of incarcerated prisoners, on the other hand, serves different aims than those found invalid in Bell and Ingraham. The process does not impose retribution in lieu of a valid conviction, nor does it maintain physical control over free citizens forced by law to subject themselves to state control over the educational mission. It effectuates prison management and prisoner rehabilitative goals.” (485)

35. Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730 (2003)

a. defense of qualified immunity was precluded at the summary judgment phase of Hope’s trial. The Court reasoned that, although Hope’s allegations if true established an Eighth Amendment violation, prison guards could be shielded from liability for their constitutionally impermissible conduct if their actions did not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Noting that United States v. Lanier makes clear that officials can be on notice that their conduct violates established law even in novel factual situations, the Court concluded that a reasonable officer would have known that using a hitching post as Hope alleged was unlawful.

Help Expose the Hidden World of Solitary Confinement

Accurate information and authentic storytelling can serve as powerful antidotes to ignorance and injustice. We have helped generate public awareness, mainstream media attention, and informed policymaking on what was once an invisible domestic human rights crisis.

Only with your support can we continue this groundbreaking work, shining light into the darkest corners of the U.S. criminal punishment system.