Ever since the prison reform movement ended in the early 1980s, it has become increasingly difficult for inmates to challenge their conditions of confinement under the Eighth Amendment. Supreme Court rulings, statutes, and lower courts' conservative applications of precedent have worked together to create a culture of deference that constrains federal courts from intervening in prison affairs. At the same time, the controversial model of the supermax prison has flourished over the past twenty years, earning notoriety for its harsh regime of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation. Conditions in supernax facilities test the boundaries of the Eighth Amendment more than any other contemporary prison conditions. Cases challenging supermax conditions therefore illustrate courts' struggle with the culture of deference more dramatically than do other Eighth Amendment cases.
This Comment analyzes three recent cases in which federal courts facing Eighth Amendment challenges to supermax prison conditions granted inmates relief, and concludes that all of these courts relied on the same strategy to defuse the tension between their desire to intervene and their obligation to defer. Rather than engaging in a detailed analysis of the challenged conditions, these courts shifted their focus to the characteristics of the inmates and tied relief to the vulnerability of a subgroup of mentally ill prisoners.
The author argues that this strategy threatens prisoners' rights in the long term because it prevents courts from policing the constitutionality of new types of prison conditions. Based on another recent supermax case, Austin v. Wilkinson, the author concludes that Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process challenges may help counter the culture of judicial deference and mitigate the constricted state of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence by providing a crucial forum for ongoing constitutional analysis of innovative prison conditions.