The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution clearly prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. But what it doesn’t clearly do is describe what punishments, exactly, are cruel and unusual. That’s been left up to the courts.
And while one could argue that ending a person’s life is the cruelest thing the criminal justice system could do, courts have allowed the death penalty to exist while outlawing some lesser punishments. So how do judges decide what’s permitted and what’s cruel and unusual?
While state and federal laws prohibit using certain drugs, current and former drug users may get arrested and jailed. Without access to those drugs or an alternative, they can suffer serious withdrawal symptoms. One former opioid addict, arrested for driving on a suspended license, is suing for access to prescription methadone while incarcerated.
Being hot is one thing. Boiling to death is another. Dozens of inmates have died in Texas prisons over the last decade due to “extremely high temperatures and humidity levels resulting from Texas summertime conditions and the lack of air conditioning and adequate ventilation” in state facilities.
While the death penalty may be legal, certain forms of execution are not. And while lethal injection has not been deemed cruel and unusual punishment, the results of certain drug cocktails have seemed that way. As a result, many drug makers are working hard to ensure their products are not used for executions.
Years ago, courts determined that packing too many prisoners into a facility constituted cruel and unusual punishment. And California has been struggling to find space solutions ever since.
Courts have also decided that certain punishments, including the death penalty, may be OK for adults, but be cruel and unusual when applied to juveniles.