Important Note: The law is always evolving. If you have access to a prison law library, you always need to confirm that the cases and statutes cited below are still good law. This information was updated in November 2008.
Much of the following information was taken from a book by John Boston and Daniel Manville called the Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual (3d ed. 1995).
Protection from Assault
Assault by Another Prisoner
Prison officials may be held liable under the Eighth Amendment only if they act with "deliberate indifference" or "reckless disregard" for a prisoner’s safety. See id. at 836-37. In other words, prison officials may be liable if they knew that a prisoner was at substantial risk of serious harm, but ignored that risk and failed to take reasonable steps to protect the prisoner. See id. at 847. Generally, courts have distinguished between a substantial risk of serious harm (or strong likelihood of injury) and the everyday risk of harm that comes from being in prison (or mere possibility of injury). See, e.g., Purcell ex rel. Estate of Morgan v. Toombs County, Ga, 400 F.3d 1313, 1319-20 (11th Cir. 2005); Brown v. Hughes, 894 F.2d 1533, 1537 (11th Cir. 1990). In addition, even when a prisoner is harmed, if prison officials responded reasonably to the risk, they are not held liable. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 844-45. Courts often dismiss isolated failures to protect as "mere negligence," even when prison officials had prior information about a threat to a prisoner, but failed to act on that information. See Davidson v. Cannon, 474 U.S. 344, 347-48 (1986).
Use of Force by Prison Staff
With respect to convicted prisoners, prison staff violate the Eighth Amendment when they use force "maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm," but they are permitted to use force "in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline." Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 6 (1992) (quoting Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 320-21 (1986)). Courts apply different legal standards to arrestees, pretrial detainees, and convicted prisoners; however, a prisoner generally must show that the force used was not justified by any legitimate law enforcement or prison management need, or was completely out of proportion to that need. See Hudson, 503 U.S. at 5-6 (convicted prisoners); Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 397 (1989) (arrestees). Inflictions of pain that are "totally without penological justification" are necessarily "unnecessary and wanton" in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 737 (2002) (quoting Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 346 (1981)).