Hope Triumphs: Supreme Court Says Hitching Post for Alabama Prisoners is "Cruel and Unusual"

June 27, 2002 12:00 am

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Statement of Elizabeth Alexander, Director, ACLU National Prison Project


WASHINGTON- In an important victory for prisoners’ rights, the Supreme Court today ruled that prison officials in Alabama have no right to handcuff prisoners to a hitching post in situations where no emergency exists.

The High Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against “”cruel and unusual”” punishment was “clearly established”” and had been violated in this particular case.

The American Civil Liberties Union applauds today’s decision for its recognition that acts of cruelty and degradation are beyond the pale of a civilized society. Today an instrument of torture was finally banished from Alabama, the last Department of Corrections to use it. It is a banishment that is long overdue.

Of particular importance, the Court was careful to provide a broad holding on the nature of the Eighth Amendment violation. Specifically, the Court noted that, while the violation in this case was exacerbated by the failure of guards to give inmate Larry Hope proper clothing, water, or bathroom breaks, it is the use of the hitching post itself in non-emergency situations that violates the Constitution.

Today’s decision should be extremely helpful in litigation challenging various kinds of prisoner abuse, such as restraint chairs and other forms of physical restraint, when they are not used in emergency situations.

The 6-3 ruling in Hope v. Pelzer, 01-309 , written by Justice John Paul Stevens, found the constitutional violation “”obvious” and stated that Hope had been treated by prison staff in a manner that offended human dignity. Today’s decision will allow Hope to take legal action against his jailers.

The Court also noted that Hope had been hitched to a post for an extended period of time in a painful position “”under conditions that were both degrading and dangerous,”” saying that “”this wanton treatment was not done of necessity, but as punishment for prior conduct.””

Hope was attached to the hitching post in a manner that forced him to keep his arms above his shoulders. Whenever he tried to move, the handcuffs cut into his wrists, causing him pain. According to the legal complaint, guards took away Hope’s shirt and left him exposed to the sun for seven hours with no bathroom breaks and only a few sips of water. When he asked for water, a guard first gave water to some dogs and then kicked the water cooler over, spilling its contents.

The ACLU’s friend-of-the-court brief filed in this case is online at /Files/OpenFile.cfm?id=10443

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