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Defining 'Sufficiently Serious' in Claims of Cruel and Unusual Punishment

37 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2013 Last revised: 24 Jan 2014

George Bach

University of New Mexico - School of Law

Date Written: August 1, 2013


When analyzing inmate claims brought under Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment that arise from conditions of confinement, the courts employ a two-prong approach, asking: 1) whether the injury was “objectively, sufficiently serious,” and 2) whether the prison official was “deliberately indifferent” to the inmate’s needs. Although wide-ranging examples of deprivations of adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care and safety can be found that do or do not satisfy the “objectively, sufficiently serious” standard, no consistent definition or articulated factors have been universally adopted in such cases. While a sodomy allegation meets the “objectively, sufficiently serious,” standard, a denial of food due to an inmate’s failure to comply with prison policy may not. Where a particular inmate claim of deprivation falls on the resulting spectrum is any court’s guess.

This article reviews “evolving standards of decency” by studying state correctional standards in three areas: nutritional adequacy, hygiene, and exercise. Then, after ascertaining the “constitutional minimum,” three objective factors are examined from case-law and jury verdicts: duration, severity, and loss of dignity. When applied to a deviation from the constitutional minimum, these factors will best assist courts, practitioners, and juries in determining whether a claim arising out of conditions of confinement is “sufficiently serious”.

Keywords: Eighth Amendment, Cruel and Unusual Punishment, Prisons, Jails

Suggested Citation

Bach, George, Defining 'Sufficiently Serious' in Claims of Cruel and Unusual Punishment (August 1, 2013). Drake Law Review, Vol. 61, 2013; UNM School of Law Research Paper No. 2014-05. Available at SSRN: or

George Bach (Contact Author)

University of New Mexico - School of Law ( email )

1117 Stanford, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM 87131
United States

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