Wilson v. Seiter

Facts of the Case

Petitioner Wilson, an Ohio prison inmate, brought an action under 42 USCS 1983 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio against the director of the state department of correction and the warden of the prison, alleging that certain conditions of his confinement constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Federal Constitution’s Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment with supporting affidavits. The petitioner’s affidavits described the challenged conditions and alleged that the prison authorities had failed to take remedial action after being notified of those conditions. In their affidavits, the prison authorities denied that some of the challenged conditions existed and described efforts which had been made to improve the others. The District Court granted summary judgment to the prison authorities, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed, stating that certain of the petitioner’s claims, even if proved, did not involve a sufficiently serious deprivation of human needs to constitute an Eighth Amendment violation. With respect to his remaining claims, the appellate court held that the petitioner was required to show that the prison officials had acted with persistent malicious cruelty. The appellate court concluded that the petitioner’s claims, at best, evidenced only negligence on the part of the prison authorities. The United States Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari.


Did the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit err by holding that prison officials must have a culpable state of mind in order to establish cruel and unusual punishment of an inmate? Did the Court of Appeals err by overlooking an inmate’s claim that prison officials showed deliberate indifference to his conditions of confinement?


No and Yes. Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the opinion for a unanimous court. The Court referred to its earlier decisions in Francis v. Resweber and Estelle v. Gamble to establish that cruel and unusual punishment required the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain. For this to occur, the prison officials had to exhibit intentional cruelty, which would result in a culpable state of mind. However, deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s conditions also constituted abusive treatment according to this standard. Therefore the Court of Appeals should have considered this aspect of Wilson’s grievances.

Case Information

  • Citation: 501 US 294 (1991)
  • Argued: Jan 7, 1991
  • Decided Jun 17, 1991