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The unjustified striking or beating of a prisoner by police or correctional officials constitutes cruel and unusual punishment which is actionable under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983. Society's intolerance for such brutality is well-documented, but it rises to new levels when the instrument of harm, even when properly used, possesses inherently dangerous characteristics capable of causing serious and perhaps irreparable injury to the victim. High-pressure water hoses, tear gas, and billy clubs, though legitimate forms of control in certain circumstances, become instruments of brutality when used indiscriminately against a defenseless prisoner. Even when a prisoner's conduct warrants some form of response, evolving norms of decency require prison officials to use techniques and procedures that are both humane and restrained.
Charles J. Slakan, a North Carolina inmate, was injured when prison guards Michael Walters, Tracy Porter, and Johnny Barefoot used high-pressure water hoses, tear gas, and billy clubs to subdue him while he was confined in a one-man cell. He brought a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit against the three guards and three high ranking prison supervisory officials, Warden Sam Garrison, Director of Prisons Ralph Edwards, and Secretary of Corrections Amos Reed, alleging (1) that the guards used excessive force against him in violation of the eighth amendment's cruel and unusual punishment clause and (2) that supervisory officials were deliberately indifferent to a known risk of harm, as evidenced by their failure to provide prison guards with adequate training and guidance. The jury absolved prison guard Porter of liability, but awarded Slakan $32,500 in combined compensatory and punitive damages against the remaining five defendants.
Could the prison guards be held responsible for depriving Slakan of his constitutional rights?
The court held that the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to establish that Slakan’s injuries were a natural and foreseeable consequence of the prison guards’ indifference. The court reasoned that the prison guards all had varying degrees of knowledge about the excessive and unregulated use of water hoses against unarmed, securely confined inmates. The court concluded that the prison guards were cognizant of the volatile nature of the prison environment and the need to provide clear guidance to frontline personnel on the permissible uses of force against defenseless inmates. The prison guards also contended that they were immune from money damages. The court found that the prison guards were presumed to know the law and could be held accountable for violation of the law. The court also held that the trial court acted well within the bounds of discretion in permitting a tape to be viewed by the jury.