Estelle v. Gamble

PETITIONER:W. J. Estelle, Jr., Director, Texas Department of Corrections, Ralph Gray, Medical Director of the Texas Department of Corrections, H. H. Husbands, Warden of the Walls Unit.
LOCATION:Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, or “Walls Unit”

DOCKET NO.: 75-929
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 429 US 97 (1976)
ARGUED: Oct 05, 1976
DECIDED: Nov 30, 1976
GRANTED: Feb 23, 1976

Bert W. Pluymen – for petitioners, pro hac vice, by special leave of Court
Daniel K. Hedges – for respondent, pro hac vice, by special leave of Court

Facts of the case

J. W. Gamble was a prisoner in the Huntington Unit of the Texas prison system, also known as the “Walls Unit.” On November 9, 1973, a 600-pound bale of cotton fell on Gamble while he was working in a textile mill during a work assignment in Huntsville, Texas. He continued to work for several hours, but later became stiff and requested a pass to the unit hospital. The hospital gave Gamble a checkup for a hernia and sent him back to his cell, but later his pain became so intense that he was forced to return to the hospital. A nurse gave Gamble two pain pills, and a hospital doctor later examined him but gave him no further treatment. On November 10th, a different doctor examined Gamble, prescribed him painkillers and placed Gamble on a cell-pass cell-feed routine that mostly confined him to his cell.

That same doctor later took Gamble off the cell-pass cell-feed routine, concluding that he was able to engage in light work. The prison administrative office soon placed Gamble in “administrative segregation” — essentially solitary confinement — for refusing to work. Gamble remained in solitary confinement through January of the next year, although he complained that his back pain was as intense as on the first day he was injured. On December 6, a different doctor examined Gamble and diagnosed him with high blood pressure; the previous doctor never detected this condition. Gamble refused to work several more times over the next few months, and was repeatedly disciplined for doing so. When Gamble began experiencing pain in his chest on a regular basis, he was hospitalized and treated, but the prison denied him later requests for treatment. In all, medical personnel treated Gamble seventeen times.

On February 11, 1974, Gamble signed apro se complaint alleging that the prison subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth. The district court dismissed Gamble’s complaint for failure to state a claim. The United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, reversed, noting that the prison failed to diagnose Gamble’s back injury by giving him an X-ray, that the prison provided no real treatment for Gamble’s back injury, and that Gamble was essentially placed in solitary confinement due to substandard medical care.


1. Did Gamble’spro se complaint that the Walls unit subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment raise a constitutional question or state a claim upon which relief can be granted?

2. Did the Fifth Circuit err in reversing the district court’s summary dismissal of Gamble’s complaint because the complaint rested on a disagreement between licensed physicians about Gamble’s injury?

Media for Estelle v. Gamble

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 05, 1976 in Estelle v. Gamble

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – November 30, 1976 in Estelle v. Gamble

Warren E. Burger:

The judgments and opinion of the Court in 75-929, Estelle against Gamble will be announced by Mr. Justice Marshall.

Thurgood Marshall:

This case is here on writ of certiorari to the Fifth Circuit.

The case arose when Gamble, a prisoner in the Texas Department of Correction has filed a civil rights action under 42 U.S. Code 1983 against the prison doctor, the prison warden, and the Director of the Department of Corrections.

He claimed that he was subjected to cruelty and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment and the prison’s treatment of a back injury he sustained during prison work.

The District Court dismissed the complaint from failure to state the cause of action and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed and ordered the claim reinstated.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we spelled out the guidelines for such complaints and we hold that in this case as in others, the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment requires a prison be provided with medical care and that deliberative deliverance by prison personnel to a prisoner with such illness or injury violates the Eighth Amendment.

In the present case however, we find no such indifference by one of the petitioners, the doctor Dr. Gray.

And according to his complaint, the prisoner in this case saw Dr. Gray and other medical personnel on at least 17 different occasions at which time he was given medicine and otherwise treated with back injury, as well as his other ailments.

Accordingly, the complaint against the doctor was properly dismissed by the District Court.

On the other hand, the question whether Gamble was — has stated a constitutional claim against the other petitioners, the Director of the Department of Corrections and the warden of the prison, these were not separately evaluated by the Court.

And for that reason, the case is remanded for the consideration of these other questions.

Mr. Justice Blackmun concurred from the judgment of the Court.

Mr. Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you Mr. Justice Marshall.