Prison-conditions cases since Wilson v. Seiter: A study in lower court compliance with Supreme Court decision making

Date of Completion

January 1999


Law|Political Science, General|Sociology, Criminology and Penology




Prior to the late 1960s, federal courts took a hands-off approach when inmates in state prisons tried to challenge the conditions of their confinement as violative of the Eighth Amendment's proscription of “cruel and unusual punishment.” However, beginning in the late 1960s, federal district judges began to look into these prisons—to take a more hands-on approach—and found shocking conditions in old, overcrowded institutions. For over a decade these federal district courts assumed an activist role, intervening where constitutional violations were found through orders mandating radical changes in the institutions, often monitored by court-appointed special masters. ^ In 1981, in the case of Rhodes v. Chapman, the Supreme Court for the first time considered a general-conditions case. The language of the Court's opinion spoke in sweeping terms of the need for federal judges to show deference to state prison officials; the holding of the case was that double celling in a new Ohio prison was not unconstitutional, even though the cells had been designed for one inmate. While the language of the opinion counseled deference, the lower federal courts continued as before, actively finding conditions to violate the Eighth Amendment. ^ Finally, in 1991, the Supreme Court decision in Wilson v. Seiter sent a more obvious message to the lower courts. In addition to tightening up the requirements to prove the objective element—that the conditions were cruel and unusual—the Court recognized a mental element, deliberate indifference on the part of prison officials, which inmates would also have to prove. ^ An examination of ten years of federal district court opinions—five years before and five years after Wilson v. Seiter—shows that Wilson achieved a compliant reaction by the federal district courts, resulting in a more restraintist approach to intervening in state prisons. The clarity of the Wilson opinion and later supporting opinions by the Supreme Court were important factors in the Supreme Court's obtaining compliance with its policy direction. ^