Leonard Strickland was beaten to death; in jail, by prison guards. Those who did so, and those who supervised them, were secure in the knowledge that very little would be, and could be, done to bring them to justice. History and the law is on their side.
In 1992, in one of Clarence Thomas‘ earliest cases on the Supreme Court, Hudson v. McMillian, Thomas found himself on the losing side in a 7-2 decision. Keith Hudson, an inmate who had suffered a vicious beating at Angola Prison, had filed suit in a federal court, claiming violation of his Eighth Amendment rights. He won $800 in damages as the judge found he had been beaten “maliciously, unnecessarily, and wantonly.” On appeal, the case had made its way to the Supreme Court, where the decision was “cautiously” affirmed with only Antonin Scalia and Thomas dissenting. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor distinguished this case from “those cases where deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s health is not a violation unless there is serious injury.” The relevant test was “whether force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.” (Note the ‘good faith’ exception.)
Thomas, in his dissent, claimed that “a use of force that causes only insignificant harm to a prisoner may be immoral, it may be tortious, it may be criminal, and it may even be remediable under other provisions of the Federal Constitution, but it is not ‘cruel and unusual punishment’….The Eighth Amendment is not, and should not be turned into, a National Code of Prison Regulation.” Thomas based his decision on: the culture and values of the eighteenth century, the history of the cruel and unusual punishment clause, the Constitutional Convention and state ratifying convention debates, and of course, the text of the Constitution. He noted the Supreme Court had, for a very long period in American history, rejected all “conditions of complaint ” claims and not held the cruel and unusual punishment clause relevant to prison conditions. He concluded that “Today’s expansion of the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause beyond all bounds of history and precedent is…yet another manifestation of the pervasive view that the Federal Constitution must address all ills in our society….[including] any hardship that might befall a prisoner during incarceration.” Thomas went on to suggest that older cases affirming prisoners’ claims of beatings and torture should be overturned.
Scalia and Thomas lost, but they set the stage for what followed.
In 1996, thanks to extensive lobbying by William Rehnquist, the Supreme Court Chief Justice who, though impatient with prisoners rights claims, for tactical reasons had earlier joined the Hudson v. McMillian majority, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act, stating prisoners cannot recover damages under the cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause if there is “no permanent damage.” Prisoners cannot recover for pain and suffering even if the beating is “long, brutal, malicious, and wanton.” The Prison Litigation Reform Act was, as Martin Garbus claims, a “a manual for the police on how to conduct beatings and not get sued.”
The immorality and brutality of our prison system is scaffolded by our nation’s laws.
Note: This post is cribbed from Martin Garbus’ Courting Disaster: The Supreme Court and the Unmaking of American Law, Henry Holt, New York, 2002, pp. 74-75.