Washington Law Review


Twenty-four-hour lighting causes sleep deprivation, depression, and other serious disorders for incarcerated individuals, yet courts often do not consider it to be cruel and unusual. To decide if prison conditions violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, courts follow a two-part inquiry that requires examining the intent of prison officials (known as the subjective prong) as well as the degree of seriousness of the alleged cruel or unusual condition (the objective prong). Incarcerated individuals often file complaints challenging 24-hour lighting conditions. Whether they succeed on these claims may depend on the circuit in which they reside. Judges have broad discretion in deciding what type of evidence satisfies each prong of the inquiry, and there is great room for differing opinions and outcomes based on how judges view a particular set of facts.

This unpredictability and inconsistency in outcomes could be improved by eliminating the subjective component of the Eighth Amendment test and focusing solely on objective harm resulting from constant illumination, similar to the approach taken with respect to reasonableness inquiries under the Fourth Amendment. Shifting the focus of the analysis to whether 24-hour lighting causes a sufficiently serious deprivation of basic human rights would result in a more objective approach and provide plaintiffs with a clearer understanding of the proof needed to secure a favorable outcome. A plaintiff who can show objectively serious or extreme harm suffered as a result of constant illumination should prevail on an Eighth Amendment challenge.

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