Hutto v. Finney

United States Supreme Court

437 U.S. 678; 98 S. Ct. 2565; 57 L. Ed. 2d 522 (1978)

 

      In a series of decisions handed down during the 1970s, a federal district court issued detailed orders aimed at remedying conditions in the Arkansas prison system. One of these orders placed a maximum limit of thirty days on the use of punitive isolation. In the instant case, the Supreme Court reviews this order.

 

Mr. Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court.

 

            After finding that conditions in the Arkansas penal system constitute cruel and unusual punishment, the District Court entered a series of detailed remedial orders. On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, petitioners challenged ... an order placing a maximum limit of 30 days on confinement in punitive isolation. ... The Court of Appeals affirmed. ... We granted certiorari ... and now affirm.

 

            This litigation began in 1969; it is a sequel to two earlier cases holding that conditions in the Arkansas prison system violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Only a brief summary of the facts is necessary to explain the basis for the remedial order.

           

The routine conditions that the ordinary Arkansas convict had to endure were characterized by the District Court as “a dark and evil world completely alien to the free world.” ... That characterization was amply supported by the evidence.

 

            The inmates slept together in large, 100-man barracks and some convicts, known as “creepers,” would slip from their beds to crawl along the floor, stalking their sleeping enemies. In one 18-month period, there were 17 stabbings, all but one occurring in the barracks. Homosexual rape was so common and uncontrolled that some potential victims dared not sleep; instead they would leave their beds and spend the night clinging to the bars nearest the guards' station. The punishments for misconduct not serious enough to result in punitive isolation were cruel, unusual, and unpredictable. It is the discipline known as “punitive isolation” that is most relevant for present purposes.

 

            Confinement in punitive isolation was for an indeterminate period of time. An average of four, and sometimes as many as 10 or 11, prisoners were crowded into windowless 8’ x 10’ cells containing no furniture other than a source of water and a toilet that could only be flushed from outside the cell. At night the prisoners were given mattresses to spread on the floor. Although some prisoners suffered from infectious diseases such as hepatitis and venereal disease, mattresses were removed and jumbled together each morning, then returned to the cells at random in the evening. Prisoners in isolation received fewer than 1,000 calories a day; their meals consisted primarily of 4-inch squares of “grue,” a substance created by mashing meat, potatoes, oleo, syrup, vegetables, eggs, and seasoning into a paste and baking the mixture in a pan.

 

            After finding the conditions of confinement unconstitutional, the District Court did not immediately impose a detailed remedy of its own. Instead, it directed the Department of Correction to “make a substantial start” on improving conditions and to file reports on its progress. ... When the Department's progress proved unsatisfactory, a second hearing was held. The District Court found some improvements, but concluded that prison conditions remained unconstitutional. ... Again the court offered prison administrators an opportunity to devise a plan of their own for remedying the constitutional violations, but this time the court issued guidelines, identifying four areas of change that would cure the worst evils: improving conditions in the isolation cells, increasing inmate safety, eliminating the barracks sleeping arrangements, and putting an end to the trusty system.... The Department was ordered to move as rapidly as funds became available. ...

           

After this order was affirmed on appeal, ... more hearings were held in 1972 and 1973 to review the Department's progress. Finding substantial improvements, the court concluded that continuing supervision was no longer necessary. The court held, however, that its prior decrees would remain in effect and noted that sanctions, as well as an award of costs and attorney's fees, would be imposed if violations occurred. ...

           

The Court of Appeals reversed the District Court's decision to withdraw its supervisory jurisdiction, ... and the District Court held a fourth set of hearings. ... It found that, in some respects, conditions had seriously deteriorated since 1973, when the court had withdrawn its supervisory jurisdiction. Cummins Farm, which the court had condemned as overcrowded in 1970 because it housed 1,000 inmates, now had a population of about 1,500. ... The situation in the punitive isolation cells was particularly disturbing. The court concluded that either it had misjudged conditions in these cells in 1973 or conditions had become much worse since then. ... There were still twice as many prisoners as beds in some cells. And because inmates in punitive isolation are often violently antisocial, overcrowding led to persecution of the weaker prisoners. The “grue” diet was still in use, and practically all inmates were losing weight on it. The cells had been vandalized to a “very substantial” extent. ... Because of their inadequate numbers, guards assigned to the punitive isolation cells frequently resorted to physical violence, using nightsticks and Mace in their efforts to maintain order. Prisoners were sometimes left in isolation for months, their release depending on “their attitudes as appraised by prison personnel.”

 

            The court concluded that the constitutional violations identified earlier had not been cured. It entered an order that placed limits on the number of men that could be confined in one cell, required that each have a bunk, discontinued the “grue” diet, and set 30 days as the maximum isolation sentence. The District Court gave detailed consideration to the matter of fees and expenses, made an express finding that petitioners had acted in bad faith, and awarded counsel “a fee of $20,000.00 to be paid out of [the] Department of Correction funds.” ... The Court of Appeals affirmed and assessed an additional $2,500 to cover fees and expenses on appeal. ...

           

... The Eighth Amendment's ban on inflicting cruel and unusual punishments, made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, “proscribes more than physically barbarous punishments.” ... It prohibits penalties that are grossly disproportionate to the offense, ... as well as those that transgress today's “broad and idealistic concepts of dignity, civilized standards, humanity, and decency.” ... Confinement in a prison or in an isolation cell is a form of punishment subject to scrutiny under Eighth Amendment standards. Petitioners do not challenge this proposition; nor do they disagree with the District Court's original conclusion that Arkansas prisons, including its punitive isolation cells, constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Rather, petitioners single out that portion of the District Court's most recent order that forbids the Department to sentence inmates to more than 30 days in punitive isolation. Petitioners assume that the District Court held that indeterminate sentences to punitive isolation always constitute cruel and unusual punishments. This assumption misreads the District Court's holding.

 

            Read in its entirety, the District Court's opinion makes it abundantly clear that the length of isolation sentences was not considered in a vacuum. In the court's words, punitive isolation “is not necessarily unconstitutional, but it may be, depending on the duration of the confinement and the conditions thereof.” ... It is perfectly obvious that every decision to remove a particular inmate from general prison population for an indeterminate period could not be characterized as cruel and unusual. If new conditions of confinement are not materially different from those affecting other prisoners, a transfer for the duration of a prisoner's sentence might be completely unobjectionable and well within the authority of the prison administrator. ... It is equally plain, however, that the length of confinement cannot be ignored in deciding whether the confinement meets constitutional standards. A filthy, overcrowded cell and a diet of “grue” might be tolerated for a few days and intolerably cruel for weeks or months.

 

            The question before the trial court was whether past constitutional violations had been remedied. The court was entitled to consider the severity of those violations in assessing the constitutionality of conditions in the isolation cells. The court took note of the inmates' diet, the continued overcrowding, the rampant violence, the vandalized cells, and the “lack of professionalism and good judgment on the part of maximum security personnel.” ... The length of time each inmate spent in isolation was simply one consideration among many. We find no error in the court's conclusion that, taken as a whole, conditions in the isolation cells continued to violate the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. ...

 

            The judgment of the Court of Appeals is accordingly affirmed.

 

 

Mr. Justice Powell, with whom the Chief Justice joins, concurring in part and dissenting in part. ...

 

 

Mr. Justice Rehnquist, dissenting.

 

            ... No person of ordinary feeling could fail to be moved by the Court's recitation of the conditions formerly prevailing in the Arkansas prison system. Yet I fear the Court has allowed itself to be moved beyond the well-established bounds limiting the exercise of remedial authority by the federal district courts. ...

 

            The District Court's order limiting the maximum period of punitive isolation to 30 days in no way related to any condition found offensive to the Constitution. It is, when stripped of descriptive verbiage, a prophylactic rule, doubtless well designed to assure a more humane prison system in Arkansas, but not complying with [the limitations on district court remedies]. ...

 

            Certainly the provision is not remedial in the sense that it “restore[s] the victims of discriminatory conduct to the position they would have occupied in the absence of such conduct.” ... The sole effect of the provision is to grant future offenders against prison discipline greater benefits than the Constitution requires; it does nothing to remedy the plight of past victims of conditions which may well have been unconstitutional. ...