WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Thursday declared unconstitutional an Alabama prison practice of handcuffing inmates to a metal pole in the summer heat. The court ruled that an inmate could sue over his chaining.
The punishment, revived in that state in 1995 as part of a get-tough program for criminals, is "obvious" cruel and unusual punishment, the court ruled 6-3.
The victory for inmates was partly symbolic. Alabama was the only state to use "hitching posts" in recent years and it has ended the punishments.
But the ruling halts a string of Supreme Court decisions that shielded prison officials from inmate lawsuits. Justices seemed disgusted with treatment of an inmate who claims he was twice chained to an outdoor pole in 1995 and denied food and water as punishment for fighting while assigned to a chain gang.
Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, said the practice "unnecessarily and wantonly inflicted pain."
The practice was reviewed as part of the broader question of when guards may be sued.
Stevens said officers should have known that the treatment was unconstitutional, and thus can be sued by former inmate Larry Hope.
In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said traditional state immunity "has been turned on its head." He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia.
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