Wilson v. Seiter
United States Supreme Court
WILSON v. SEITER
No. 89-7376 Argued: Jan. 7, 1991. --- Decided: June 17, 1991
Petitioner Wilson, an Ohio prison inmate, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against respondents, state prison officials, alleging that certain conditions of his confinement constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. His affidavits described the challenged conditions and charged that the authorities, after notification, had failed to take remedial action. The District Court granted summary judgment for respondents, and the Court of Appeals affirmed on the ground, inter alia, that the affidavits failed to establish the requisite culpable state of mind on the part of respondents.
1. A prisoner claiming that the conditions of his confinement violate the Eighth Amendment must show a culpable state of mind on the part of prison officials. See, e.g., Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319, 106 S.Ct. 1078, 1084, 89 L.Ed.2d 251. Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 101 S.Ct. 2392, 69 L.Ed.2d 59, distinguished. An intent requirement is implicit in that Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Wilson's suggested distinction between "short-term" or "one-time" prison conditions (in which a state-of-mind requirement would apply) and "continuing" or "systemic" conditions (where official state of mind would be irrelevant) is rejected. Pp. 296-302.
2. The "deliberate indifference" standard applied in Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106, 97 S.Ct. 285, 292, 50 L.Ed.2d 251, to claims involving medical care applies generally to prisoner challenges to conditions of confinement. There is no merit to respondents' contention that that standard should be applied only in cases involving personal, physical injury, and that a malice standard is appropriate in cases challenging conditions. As Whitley teaches, the "wantonness" of conduct depends not on its effect on the prisoner, but on the constraints facing the official. Pp. 302-304.
3. The Court of Appeals erred in failing to consider Wilson's claims under the "deliberate indifference" standard and applying instead a standard of "behavior marked by persistent malicious cruelty." It is possible that the error was harmless, since the court said that Wilson's affidavits established "[a]t best . . . negligence." Conceivably, however, the court would have reached a different disposition under the correct standard, and so the case is remanded for reconsideration on that basis. Pp. 304-306.
893 F.2d 861 (CA6 1990), vacated and remanded.
SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O'CONNOR, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined.
Elizabeth Alexander, for petitioner.
William C. Bryson for U.S. as amicus curiae, supporting petitioner, by special leave of Court.
Rita S. Eppler, for respondents.
Justice SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.