WASHINGTON -- Dividing 5-4, the Supreme Court yesterday put a strict new limit on state prison inmates' attempts to use the Constitution to force the warden and other officials to improve living conditions behind bars.
Bad conditions inside prisons, the court ruled, are unconstitutional only when they are the direct result of officials' intentional actions.
Four of Maryland's prisons have been under federal court order since 1977 because of poor and overcrowded conditions, but it was unclear yesterday whether the Supreme Court decision would haveany effect on those consent agreements.
In its decision, the majority said the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" is not violated merely because bad conditions persist over a period of time. There must be proof, it added, that officials remained indifferent, deliberately and intentionally, to those conditions.
"Some mental element must be attributed to the inflicting officer before . . . pain inflicted [by bad conditions] can qualify" as an Eighth Amendment violation, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the majority opinion.
The four dissenting justices, complaining that the ruling marked a sharp break with past precedent, said the decision means that prisoners' lawsuits over "inhumane prison conditions" can be defeated simply by prison officials showing that insufficient funds were available to clean things up.
"Serious deprivations of basic human needs will go unredressed due to an unnecessary and meaningless search for 'deliberate indifference,' " Justice Byron R. White wrote for the dissenters.
The Maryland prisons under federal consent agreement are the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore, Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, Maryland Correctional Institution at Hagerstown, and the Maryland Correctional Training Center, also Hagerstown.
If lawyers for the state believed the new Supreme Court decision would benefit the Division of Correction, they would have to ask federal court judges here to amend those agreements.
But Ralph S. Tyler, a deputy attorney general whose office represents the Maryland prison system in cases such as these, said he could not comment on the Supreme Court's ruling until he reviewed the decision.
Attorneys for Maryland prisoners, however, reacted swiftly to the court's action.
Stuart Comstock-Gay, head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, called the ruling "a very serious decision" that will make lawsuits aimed at improving prison conditions more difficult.
"If you've got to now prove deliberate indifference, it's going to be much more difficult to undertake these things. It's going to be much more difficult to improve conditions. I don't know how we're going to do this, because when money's tight, money for prisons is the first to be cut. Prisons are not popular."
Beginning with a ruling in 1978, the court had ruled repeatedly that unsafe or unhealthy conditions inside state prisons could be challenged as a form of punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. As a result of that series of decisions, federal judges have put one state's prison system after another under detailed requirements for everything from cellblock space to exercise time.
In recent years, however, the Supreme Court has shown increasing resistance to the use of judicial power to second-guess prison management decisions. Justice Scalia notedyesterday that the court had remarked that the Constitution "does not mandate comfortable prisons."
Yesterday's ruling appeared to go further than any other recent ruling to curb the use of the Eighth Amendment by prisoners complaining about the quality of life behind the walls. Justice Scalia's majority opinion noted that the court's prior rulings had repeatedly used the word "wanton" to describe the kind of action by prison officials that would amount to unconstitutional conditions.
That, the majority said, indicates that there must be "a deliberate act intended to chastise or deter" inmates before officials would be found to violate the Eighth Amendment.
The dissenters said the majority opinion had given "no real guidance" on how the courts are to sort out "whose intent should be examined" in determining whether bad prison conditions are unconstitutional. "Inhumane prison conditions often are the result cumulative actions and inactions by numerous officials inside and outside a prison, sometimes over a long period of time."
The court majority in the case of Wilson vs. Seiter (No. 89-7376) included, besides Justice Scalia, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor and David H. Souter.
Joining Justice White in dissent were Justices Harry A. Blackmun, Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens.
Pearly L. Wilson, an inmate at Ohio's Hocking Correctional Facility in Nelsonville, had a long list of complaints about living conditions there when he sued the warden and state corrections officials.
The prison, he complained, was seriously overcrowded, mentally and physically ill prisoners there were housed in the same dormitory with other inmates, the temperature was usually too hot and the noise level too high, restrooms and dining areas were unsanitary, and there was not enough space for storage.
His constitutional challenge was thrown out by a federal court which concluded that prison officials had made some efforts to improve conditions and, besides, there was no proof that they engaged in "persistent malicious cruelty" toward the inmates.
He then took the case to the Supreme Court, which rejected his main complaint but did tell lower courts to look at the case again.