WASHINGTON — Over the dissent of Justice Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that prison guards violate the Constitution when they needlessly pummel, kick or torture prison inmates, even if the blows do not cause permanent injury.
The 7-2 decision reinstated an $800 award to a Louisiana inmate who was handcuffed and shackled by guards, then kicked from behind and punched in the face. He suffered bruises and loosened teeth and a dental plate was damaged.
Under the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, guards may not "maliciously and sadistically use force to cause harm," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said for the court.
While guards may use force to put down riots or enforce discipline, "the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" by government officials violates the basic tenets of the Constitution, she said.
The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans had thrown out the award against the prison guards on grounds that the inmate, Keith J. Hudson, had not suffered "significant injury."
The high court rejected that. It said that such a measure of injury could allow guards to torture prisoners regularly with electric prods, leather whips or rubber hoses. As Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote in a concurring opinion, the Eighth Amendment was intended to halt this sort of "state-sponsored torture and abuse."
The case (Hudson vs. McMillian, 90-6531) marked a rare alliance of the Bush Administration and the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. U.S. Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr filed a brief urging the justices to overrule the 5th Circuit and make it clear that the Constitution forbids "an infliction of pain" that has no purpose other than to punish cruelly.
Justices Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented sharply.
"In my view, a use of force that causes only insignificant harm to a prisoner may be immoral, it may be torturous, it may be criminal," Thomas wrote, "but it is not 'cruel and unusual punishment.' "
In his 13-page opinion, Thomas said the Eighth Amendment was intended to limit "criminal sentences, but (not) the treatment of prisoners." The framers of the Constitution "simply did not conceive of the Eighth Amendment as protecting inmates from harsh treatment," he said.
"Abusive behavior by prison guards is deplorable conduct that properly evokes outrage and contempt. But that does not mean that it is invariably unconstitutional," Thomas wrote. "The Eighth Amendment is not, and should not be turned into a National Code of Prison Regulation."
An American Civil Liberties Union attorney in the prison case lambasted Thomas' opinion as "simply outrageous" and said it would condone the beating and torturing of prisoners.
"It means that if Rodney King (the man beaten by Los Angeles police on videotape) had been beaten to a pulp but he did not suffer any broken bones, his constitutional rights would not have been violated," Alexander said. "I think it is very distressing that our newest justice would have such a strange view of the Constitution."