In Alabama, prisoners fight being shackled

Court hears case that will define the line between discipline and 'cruel' punishment.

Larry Hope spent seven hours in June 1995 shackled to a "hitching post" in the central yard of an Alabama prison after a brief scuffle with a guard.

Although such disciplinary methods are virtually unheard of in the US, Alabama corrections officials insist the technique is both appropriate and legal.

Mr. Hope and his lawyers disagree. They're suing three prison officials at the Limestone Correctional Facility in Capshaw, Ala., for allegedly subjecting Hope to cruel and unusual punishment.

Today, Hope's case arrives at the US Supreme Court, where the justices will consider whether the practice of locking inmates to a chest-high restraining bar for long periods of time violates the Eighth Amendment.

If a majority of justices agree that it does, they must then also decide whether Hope has the legal authority to sue Alabama prison officials for money damages.

State officials are protected from such suits under qualified immunity, unless it can be shown that the relevant constitutional prohibitions were so well-established that the prison guards knew, or should have known, about them.

It is the immunity aspect of the Hope case, in fact, that could prove to be the most significant portion of the Supreme Court's decision, according to legal analysts. At issue is whether the high court adopts the same approach to the issue as did the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, making it more difficult to sue public officials for alleged violations of constitutional rights. Or will the justices overturn the 11th Circuit's ruling, making it easier to sue officials on constitutional grounds?

Whichever way the court goes, the decision will apply nationwide and affect the full range of potential constitutional lawsuits, including prisoners' rights, excessive use of force by police, as well as racial and other forms of discrimination.

"In the last 10 to 15 years, it has become almost impossible to win one of these cases – not just prisoners' rights cases, but any case involving the Constitution," says Mark Brown, a law professor at Stetson University in St. Petersburg, Fla., who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Couldn't sue for damages

In its ruling last year on the Hope case, the 11th Circuit found that the hitching post violated the Eighth Amendment. But the court refused to allow Hope to sue the guards for money damages, ruling that prison officials' immunity from lawsuits must remain in force because the guards may not have known that the hitching post was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court has never produced a precise list of which methods of punishment comply and which violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Earlier courts have suggested that the whipping post, public dissection, being drawn and quartered, and burning alive are all methods of punishment that easily fall within the category of the cruel and unusual.

But the nation's highest court has never specifically ruled that prison inmates may not be shackled for a period of time to a stationary object. Rather, the court's earlier rulings offer general guidance, suggesting that punishments should not be "unnecessarily cruel," and that the length and severity of the punishment should not be "greatly disproportionate" to the offense.

"To prevail on his Eighth Amendment conditions-of-confinement claim, Hope must show that [Alabama prison officials] acted with deliberate indifference to his health and safety, and that they denied him the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities," says Ellen Leonard-Thomas, an assistant attorney general, in her brief to the court on behalf of Alabama.

She says the three prison guards named in the suit complied with state regulations authorizing use of the hitching post. "Hope was entitled to food, water, bathroom breaks, and medical attention while on the bar," she says. "He was under constant supervision."

Hope's lawyers see it differently. "No reasonable officer could have believed in 1995 that it was lawful to punish an inmate by leaving him handcuffed to a hitching post," says Craig Jones in his brief to the court. "The punishment was strikingly similar to punishment on a pillory – a barbaric practice long understood to be unconstitutional."

Undercutting a deterrent?

The two sides in the case also have opposing viewpoints on the other main issue – the potential to sue government officials. Mr. Brown says the 11th Circuit's restrictive view of when officials may be sued has undercut what should be a significant deterrent to government misconduct.

And it has thinned the ranks of crusading lawyers, he says. "We don't have very many civil rights lawyers anymore," Brown says. "They had to find other work."

Fifteen states, however, have filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the justices to uphold the 11th Circuit's position. The brief says that most state employees are not lawyers or judges and have little experience in determining the import of judicial opinions.

It asks the high court to grant public employees some "breathing space" by barring all lawsuits against public officials until the underlying constitutional principle cited in the suit has been so clearly established that there is no chance the officials aren't aware of it.

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