Institutional Litigation in the Post-Chapman World


Rhodes v. Chapman was the first case in which the Supreme Court was called upon to discuss the interplay between general prison conditions and the eighth amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The stage had been set for Chapman long before the case arose. The Court had examined other, narrower eighth amendment claims; lower federal courts had been entertaining a growing number of broad scale challenges to state prison conditions and granting increasingly broad injunctive relief; and with the explosion in prison population, overcrowding and overtaxed facilities had become the norm in the country’s prisons and jails. Unfortunately, Chapman did little to resolve either the underlying problem of overcrowded prisons or several key questions of eighth amendment interpretation.

Chapman was a limited and factually based decision. The Court found that double ceiling was neither per se unconstitutional, nor unconstitutional in the context of conditions at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF). These holdings nevertheless left open many questions because the context of Chapman was an unusual one: the district court described SOCF as “unquestionably a top-flight, first-class facility,” finding the food “adequate in every respect,” the ventilation system adequate, the cells free of offensive odors, the temperature and noise levels well controlled, and the provision of medical care, library space, visiting and other recreational facilities acceptable as well. The Supreme Court held that these “generally favorable findings” overshadowed the factors the district court had used as a predicate for finding an eighth amendment violation.

The opinion thus provides a model for judicial review of institutions with relatively tolerable conditions. But most prisons and jails in the country are not shiny or new, and bear little resemblance to the top-flight, first class facility involved in Chapman. Lower courts reviewing conditions in the average institution will find that Chapman does not provide answers to their questions about the scope of the eighth amendment—cruel and unusual conditions are more miserable than those at SOCF, but how much more miserable? Finding the conditions at SOCF constitutional also permitted the Court to avoid the issue of remedies. The Chapman opinion even left room for disagreement as to the role of the federal courts in institutional litigation. This paper will discuss the impact Chapman has had and is likely to have on federal and state court institutional litigation by focusing on these three areas: the scope of judicial review, the scope of the underlying constitutional right and the scope and nature of the remedial power. The impact, at least thus far, has not been as negative as some critics predicted.

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