In The

Supreme Court of the United States




Decided February 25, 1992

Justice O’Connor, For the Court


Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1 (1992), is a United States Supreme Court decision where the Court on a 7-2 vote held that the use of excessive physical force against a prisoner may constitute cruel and unusual punishment even though the inmate does not suffer serious injury.

Topic: Criminal Procedure*Court vote: 7–2
Click any Justice for detail
Joining O'Connor opinion: Justice KENNEDY Justice KENNEDY Chief Justice REHNQUIST Chief Justice REHNQUIST Justice SOUTER Justice SOUTER Justice WHITE Justice WHITE
Joining opinion in part: Justice STEVENS Justice STEVENS
Holding: The use of excessive physical force against a prisoner may constitute cruel and unusual punishment even though the inmate does not suffer serious injury.
Citation: 503 U.S. 1 Docket: 90–6531Audio: Listen to this case's oral arguments at Oyez

* As categorized by the Washington University Law Supreme Court Database

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JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court. This case requires us to decide whether the use of excessive physical force against a prisoner may constitute cruel and unusual punishment when the inmate does not suffer serious injury. We answer that question in the affirmative.


At the time of the incident that is the subject of this suit, petitioner Keith Hudson was an inmate at the state penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. Respondents Jack McMillian, Marvin Woods, and Arthur Mezo served as corrections security officers at the Angola facility. During the early morning hours of October 30,1983, Hudson and McMillian argued. Assisted by Woods, McMillian then placed Hudson in handcuffs and shackles, took the prisoner out of his cell, and walked him toward the penitentiary's "administrative lockdown" area. Hudson testified that, on the way there, McMillian punched Hudson in the mouth, eyes, chest, and stomach while Woods held the inmate in place and kicked and punched him from behind. He further testified that Mezo, the supervisor on duty, watched the beating but merely told the officers "not to have too much fun." App. 23. As a result of this episode, Hudson suffered minor bruises and swelling of his face, mouth, and lip. The blows also loosened Hudson's teeth and cracked his partial dental plate, rendering it unusable for several months.

Hudson sued the three corrections officers in Federal District Court under Rev. Stat. § 1979, 42 U. S. C. § 1983, alleging a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments and seeking compensatory damages. The parties consented to disposition of the case before a Magistrate, who found that McMillian and Woods used force when there was no need to do so and that Mezo expressly condoned their actions. App. 26. The Magistrate awarded Hudson damages of $800. Id., at 29. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed. 929 F.2d 1014 (1990). It held that inmates alleging use of excessive force in violation of the Eighth Amendment must prove: (1) significant injury; (2) resulting "directly and only from the use of force that was clearly excessive to the need"; (3) the excessiveness of which was objectively unreasonable; and (4) that the action constituted an unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain. Id., at 1015. The court determined that respondents' use of force was objectively unreasonable because no force was required. Furthermore, "[t]he conduct of McMillian and Woods qualified as clearly excessive and occasioned unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain." Ibid. However, Hudson could not prevail on his Eighth Amendment claim because his injuries were "minor" and required no medical attention. Ibid.

We granted certiorari, 499 U. S. 958 (1991), to determine whether the "significant injury" requirement applied by the Court of Appeals accords with the Constitution's dictate that cruel and unusual punishment shall not be inflicted.


In Whitley v. Albers, 475 U. S. 312 (1986), the principal question before us was what legal standard should govern the Eighth Amendment claim of an inmate shot by a guard during a prison riot. We based our answer on the settled rule that" 'the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain... constitutes cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth Amendment.''' Id., at 319 (quoting Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U. S. 651, 670 (1977)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

What is necessary to establish an "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain," we said, varies according to the nature of the alleged constitutional violation. 475 U. S., at 320. For example, the appropriate inquiry when an inmate alleges that prison officials failed to attend to serious medical needs is whether the officials exhibited "deliberate indifference." See Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U. S. 97, 104 (1976). This standard is appropriate because the State's responsibility to provide inmates with medical care ordinarily does not conflict with competing administrative concerns. Whitley, supra, at 320.

By contrast, officials confronted with a prison disturbance must balance the threat unrest poses to inmates, prison workers, administrators, and visitors against the harm inmates may suffer if guards use force. Despite the weight of these competing concerns, corrections officials must make their decisions "in haste, under pressure, and frequently without the luxury of a second chance." 475 U. S., at 320. We accordingly concluded in Whitley that application of the deliberate indifference standard is inappropriate when authorities use force to put down a prison disturbance. Instead, "the question whether the measure taken inflicted unnecessary and wanton pain and suffering ultimately turns on 'whether force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm.''' Id., at 320-321 (quoting Johnson v. Glick, 481 F.2d 1028, 1033 (CA2), cert. denied sub nom. John v. Johnson, 414 U. S. 1033 (1973)).

Many of the concerns underlying our holding in Whitley arise whenever guards use force to keep order. Whether the prison disturbance is a riot or a lesser disruption, corrections officers must balance the need "to maintain or restore discipline" through force against the risk of injury to inmates. Both situations may require prison officials to act quickly and decisively. Likewise, both implicate the principle that" '[p]rison administrators... should be accorded wide-ranging deference in the adoption and execution of policies and practices that in their judgment are needed to preserve internal order and discipline and to maintain institutional security.''' 475 U. S., at 321-322 (quoting Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U. S. 520, 547 (1979)). In recognition of these similarities, we hold that whenever prison officials stand ac cused of using excessive physical force in violation of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, the core judicial inquiry is that set out in Whitley: whether force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.

Extending Whitley's application of the "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" standard to all allegations of excessive force works no innovation. This Court derived the Whitley test from one articulated by Judge Friendly in Johnson v. Glick, supra, a case arising out of a prisoner's claim to have been beaten and harassed by a guard. Moreover, many Courts of Appeals already apply the Whitley standard to allegations of excessive force outside of the riot situation. See Corselli v. Coughlin, 842 F.2d 23, 26 (CA2 1988); Miller v. Leathers, 913 F.2d 1085, 1087 (CA4 1990) (en bane), cert. denied, 498 U. S. 1109 (1991); Haynes v. Marshall, 887 F.2d 700, 703 (CA6 1989); Stenzel v. Ellis, 916 F.2d 423, 427 (CA8 1990); Brown v. Smith, 813 F.2d 1187, 1188 (CAll 1987). But see Unwin v. Campbell, 863 F.2d 124, 130 (CA1 1988) (rejecting application of Whitley standard absent "an actual disturbance").


Under the Whitley approach, the extent of injury suffered by an inmate is one factor that may suggest "whether the use of force could plausibly have been thought necessary" in a particular situation, "or instead evinced such wantonness with respect to the unjustified infliction of harm as is tantamount to a knowing willingness that it occur." 475 U. S., at 321. In determining whether the use of force was wanton and unnecessary, it may also be proper to evaluate the need for application of force, the relationship between that need and the amount of force used, the threat "reasonably perceived by the responsible officials," and "any efforts made to temper the severity of a forceful response." Ibid. The absence of serious injury is therefore relevant to the Eighth Amendment inquiry, but does not end it. Respondents nonetheless assert that a significant injury requirement of the sort imposed by the Fifth Circuit is mandated by what we have termed the "objective component" of Eighth Amendment analysis. See Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U. S. 294, 298 (1991). Wilson extended the deliberate indifference standard applied to Eighth Amendment claims involving medical care to claims about conditions of confinement. In taking this step, we suggested that the subjective aspect of an Eighth Amendment claim (with which the Court was concerned) can be distinguished from the objective facet of the same claim. Thus, courts considering a prisoner's claim must ask both if "the officials act[ed] with a sufficiently culpable state of mind" and if the alleged wrongdoing was objectively "harmful enough" to establish a constitutional violation. Id., at 298, 303.

With respect to the objective component of an Eighth Amendment violation, Wilson announced no new rule. Instead, that decision suggested a relationship between the requirements applicable to different types of Eighth Amendment claims. What is necessary to show sufficient harm for purposes of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause depends upon the claim at issue, for two reasons. First, "[t]he general requirement that an Eighth Amendment claimant allege and prove the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain should... be applied with due regard for differences in the kind of conduct against which an Eighth Amendment objection is lodged." Whitley, supra, at 320. Second, the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments "'draw[s] its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,'" and so admits of few absolute limitations. Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U. S. 337, 346 (1981) (quoting Trop v. Dulles, 356 U. S. 86, 101 (1958) (plurality opinion)).

The objective component of an Eighth Amendment claim is therefore contextual and responsive to "contemporary standards of decency." Estelle, supra, at 103. For in stance, extreme deprivations are required to make out a conditions-of-confinement claim. Because routine discomfort is "part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society," Rhodes, supra, at 347, "only those deprivations denying 'the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities' are sufficiently grave to form the basis of an Eighth Amendment violation." Wilson, supra, at 298 (quoting Rhodes, supra, at 347) (citation omitted). A similar analysis applies to medical needs. Because society does not expect that prisoners will have unqualified access to health care, deliberate indifference to medical needs amounts to an Eighth Amendment violation only if those needs are "serious." See Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U. S., at 103-104.

In the excessive force context, society's expectations are different. When prison officials maliciously and sadistically use force to cause harm, contemporary standards of decency always are violated. See Whitley, supra, at 327. This is true whether or not significant injury is evident. Otherwise, the Eighth Amendment would permit any physical punishment, no matter how diabolic or inhuman, inflicting less than some arbitrary quantity of injury. Such a result would have been as unacceptable to the drafters of the Eighth Amendment as it is today. See Estelle, supra, at 102 (proscribing torture and barbarous punishment was "the primary concern of the drafters" of the Eighth Amendment); Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U. S. 130, 136 (1879) ("[I]t is safe to affirm that punishments of torture... and all others in the same line of unnecessary cruelty, are forbidden by [the Eighth Amendment]").

That is not to say that every malevolent touch by a prison guard gives rise to a federal cause of action. See Johnson v. Glick, 481 F. 2d, at 1033 ("Not every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge's chambers, violates a prisoner's constitutional rights"). The Eighth Amendment's prohibition of "cruel and unusual" punishments necessarily excludes from constitutional recognition de minimis uses of physical force, provided that the use of force is not of a sort" 'repugnant to the conscience of mankind.'" Whitley, 475 U. S., at 327 (quoting Estelle, supra, at 106) (internal quotation marks omitted).

In this case, the Fifth Circuit found Hudson's claim untenable because his injuries were "minor." 929 F. 2d, at 1015. Yet the blows directed at Hudson, which caused bruises, swelling, loosened teeth, and a cracked dental plate, are not de minimis for Eighth Amendment purposes. The extent of Hudson's injuries thus provides no basis for dismissal of his § 1983 claim.


The dissent's theory that Wilson requires an inmate who alleges excessive use of force to show serious injury in addition to the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain misapplies Wilson and ignores the body of our Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. As we have already suggested, the question before the Court in Wilson was "[w]hether a prisoner claiming that conditions of confinement constitute cruel and unusual punishment must show a culpable state of mind on the part of prison officials, and, if so, what state of mind is required." Wilson, supra, at 296. Wilson presented neither an allegation of excessive force nor any issue relating to what was dubbed the "objective component" of an Eighth Amendment claim.

Wilson did touch on these matters in the course of summarizing our prior holdings, beginning with Estelle v. Gamble, supra. Estelle, we noted, first applied the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause to deprivations that were not specifically part of the prisoner's sentence. Wilson, supra, at 297. As might be expected from this primacy, Estelle stated the principle underlying the cases discussed in Wilson: Punishments "incompatible with the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society" or "involv[ing] the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" are "repugnant to the Eighth Amendment." Estelle, supra, at 102-103 (internal quotation marks omitted). This is the same rule the dissent would reject. With respect to the objective component of an Eighth Amendment claim, however, Wilson suggested no departure from Estelle and its progeny.

The dissent's argument that claims based on excessive force and claims based on conditions of confinement are no different in kind, post, at 24-25, and n. 4, is likewise unfounded. Far from rejecting Whitley's insight that the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain standard must be applied with regard for the nature of the alleged Eighth Amendment violation, the Wilson Court adopted it. See Wilson, 501 U. S., at 302-303. How could it be otherwise when the constitutional touchstone is whether punishment is cruel and unusual? To deny, as the dissent does, the difference between punching a prisoner in the face and serving him unappetizing food is to ignore the "'concepts of dignity, civilized standards, humanity, and decency'" that animate the Eighth Amendment. Estelle, supra, at 102 (quoting Jackson v. Bishop, 404 F.2d 571, 579 (CA8 1968)).


Respondents argue that, aside from the significant injury test applied by the Fifth Circuit, their conduct cannot constitute an Eighth Amendment violation because it was "isolated and unauthorized." Brief for Respondents 28. The beating of Hudson, they contend, arose from "a personal dispute between correctional security officers and a prisoner," and was against prison policy. Ibid. Respondents invoke the reasoning of courts that have held the use of force by prison officers under such circumstances beyond the scope of "punishment" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. See Johnson v. Glick, supra, at 1032 ("[A]lthough a spontaneous attack by a guard is 'cruel' and, we hope, 'unusual,' it does not fit any ordinary concept of 'punishment' "); George v. Evans, 633 F.2d 413, 416 (CA5 1980) ("[A] single, unauthorized assault by a guard does not constitute cruel and unusual pun Opinion of STEVENS, J.

ishment... "). But see Duckworth v. Franzen, 780 F.2d 645, 652 (CA7 1985) ("If a guard decided to supplement a prisoner's official punishment by beating him, this would be punishment... "), cert. denied, 479 U. S. 816 (1986).

We take no position on respondents' legal argument because we find it inapposite on this record. The Court of Appeals left intact the Magistrate's determination that the violence at issue in this case was "not an isolated assault." App. 27, n. 1. Indeed, there was testimony that McMillian and Woods beat another prisoner shortly after they finished with Hudson. Ibid. To the extent that respondents rely on the unauthorized nature of their acts, they make a claim not addressed by the Fifth Circuit, not presented by the question on which we granted certiorari, and, accordingly, not before this Court. Moreover, respondents ignore the Magistrate's finding that Lieutenant Mezo, acting as a supervisor, "expressly condoned the use of force in this instance." App.26.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is


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