Durkheim’s Day in Court: A Sociological Analysis of Supreme Court Cases Concerning Conditions of Confinement Under the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause

Student: Libbie Main
Major: Sociology
Minor: Political Science
Advisors: Anne Nurse

The goal of this study is to determine how ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ is shaped as a social construct when applied to cases concerning conditions of confinement. For this research, I conducted an analysis of ten Supreme Court cases which evaluated the constitutionality of a punishment within the parameters of the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause. Using Emile Durkheim’s theory to interpret the results, I found that the most prevalent themes in the cases relate to individualism. My findings indicate that the opinions of the Court continue to rely on retributive understandings of punishment while also framing issues in individualistic terms, illustrating how differing aspects of American punishment have both evolved and remained constant. I argue that it is ultimately a societal respect for the individual which motivates the justices. This study helps to bridge a gap in the literature by examining Supreme Court opinions through a sociological lens.

Libbie will be online to field comments on May 8:
Noon-2pm EDT (PST 9am-11am, Africa/Europe: early evening)

25 thoughts on “Durkheim’s Day in Court: A Sociological Analysis of Supreme Court Cases Concerning Conditions of Confinement Under the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause”

  1. Libbie,

    Great presentation, though I miss seeing you! Really interesting application of Durkheim. I think that particularly in this environment, given the tensions between individual freedoms (those who won’t wear masks) and a sense of community, this is very relevant. You should be very proud!

    1. Thank you Professor Fitz Gibbon!

      I have also been thinking a lot recently about the implications that this has on the current situations. The conflict between individualism and collectivism is very central to the rhetoric surrounding political action, so I think it will be interesting to look at whether the excessive individualism in America today will have devastating consequences (and I would argue that it already has).

  2. Libbie – this is wonderful. You have no idea how proud I am of you. This is a great project and one I know you worked so hard on. I miss our visits, but cannot wait to hear what the next chapter looks like for you.

  3. Great work, Libbie! I am so proud of all your hard work. What inspired your choice in topic and what was your favorite part of the I.S. process?

    Katie Bradshaw ’17

    1. Thanks Katie!

      So I’m on the moot court team and every year we deal with a two constitutional questions, and my sophomore year one of the issues dealt with the 8th Amendment. I thought it was a really interesting topic that no one had ever really analyzed outside of political science. And my favorite part of the IS process was reading the cases and writing my analysis! It was super interesting and it felt like everything was really coming together!!

      1. Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions! I am so excited to see what your next step is and am wishing you the best. Congratulations on a job well done!

  4. I LOVED this presentation. AND I AM SO PROUD OF YOU!!! Really opened my eyes up to a different part of the 8th amendment I hadn’t previously thought of. I was wondering why you decided to choose Durkheim as your main theorist?

    1. Thank you Maha!!!!

      So when I was thinking about theory, I talked to some people in the department about different theories of punishment. In another part of my theory chapter, I go over different rationales for punishment (retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, and incapacitation), but Durkheim’s theory of penal evolution explains how punishment changes over time which is something I didn’t really find in other places. There are a ton of other theories I could have added to this project, but I think Durkheim provided the most compelling analysis.

  5. Hello Libbie! Amazing work on this project. Durkheim’s theory, based on your research, did not explain Supreme Court case punishment methods overall. Were there any specific types of cases where restitution-based punishment was more common, or was retribution-based punishment the norm across all types of Supreme Court decisions? Thank you for your time, and have an amazing summer!

    1. Thanks Brandon!

      So my IS was looking more at the Supreme Court’s opinions and how they rationalized their decisions as opposed to the actual forms of punishment themselves. But, there were some very interesting punishments that were at issue in the cases. I actually didn’t find any mentions of restitution in my cases (which is generally understood as the payment of fines), and this could be because of the nature of the 8th Amendment itself. I only looked at the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause, but one of the other clauses deals with excessive fines. However, there were definitely retributive punishments along with the retributive explanations/justifications. For example, in the case of Hope v. Pelzer, a few prison officials handcuffed an inmate to a hitching post in the sun for hours and possibly withheld water, once after getting into an argument with another inmate and another time after getting into an altercation with a guard.

  6. Hi Libbie! I really enjoyed this presentation–you did a great job of distilling your project down in a way that was very articulate and easy to understand!! I have a few questions: firstly, what was your process like when analyzing each of the court cases (i.e. what specifically were you looking for)? Secondly, what would have signaled to you a shift toward restitution in the Supreme Court rulings?

    1. Thanks Emma!

      To analyze the cases, I was looking for different themes that came out of the lit review and theory as well as things that I repeatedly saw throughout the cases that I wasn’t initially looking for. I operationalized each of the themes, and part of it included exact words or phrases while most of the analysis evaluated the sentiments that the Justices were conveying more generally. For example, the exact word “vengeance” would indicate that something was retributive. And, there are phrases that the Court uses repeatedly as constitutional standards of evaluation, such as “totally without penological justification” which I coded under the ‘justification’ theme. But the majority of the coding related more towards the larger points the Justices were conveying. So for example, the theme of individualism incorporated a wide variety of different aspects that didn’t solely rely on specific wording. The Court wrote that “the basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man” which showed the respect for the individual that is found in modern society while cases also used language that individuated both parties and exclusively humanized one side to support their decisions. There were defiantly other other parts to the theme of individualism like actions taken by or attributable to individuals, but the complexity of each theme meant that I was primarily looking for references to elements that related to the concept rather than simply exact language.

      In regards to restitution, Durkheim specifically references the payment of fines as restitutive, and it also includes different types of law outside of criminal law such as civil law,commercial law,procedural law, administrative law, etc. A mention of these sorts of things would signal that we were restitutive or that were following this expected trajectory. There would also need to be more of a movement away from retributive understandings based in punishment. While its true that we no longer use certain violent punishments, it would seem that we are in a state of flux.

  7. This is wonderful Libbie! So proud of you and how hard you worked these past four years. Can’t wait until students are learning about YOU in Contemporary Social Theory!! <3

    1. Thank you so much Ellie!! You’ve done such great things throughout your time at Wooster, and your IS and presentation really show your hard work and dedication! I’m so glad I’ve gotten to know you, and you’re going to do great things going forward!!!!

  8. You did an excellent job explaining the theoretical framework of your project in clear and accessible terms, which demonstrates the depth of your understanding. You also had to be very creative in figuring out the best way to gather data that would help answer your research question. Ultimately, your thesis not only sheds important light on the anomalous nature of the American penal system, but American culture more generally. And to top if all off, what a catchy title! Great presentation, Libbie.

    1. Thank you so much Professor Tierney! I’m glad that you enjoyed my thesis, my presentation, and the title that you thought of!!!

  9. Thank you for sharing, Libbie! This is a topic that I do not know much about, so thank you for teaching me.

    So looking over the 10 cases you analyzed, it appears the cases took place between 1976 and 2003. Within that time frame did you see any shift small shifts between what is understood to be individualism or retribution? Did themes or key phrases become more prevalent as time went on?

    I would be curious how a second historical analysis would look in a few more decades so that it included the first 30 years of the 21st century.

    1. Thanks Kristin!

      Something that was actually very interesting about the time frame is that I didn’t actually choose it, instead it was actually all that was available. To find my cases, I used a website that searched within the text of the opinions and I searched for the phrase “conditions of confinement.” There were a decent number of cases that dealt with these as an issue of pretrial detention, but significantly less which questioned conditions as punishment specifically. The cases I used were actually all of the results plus one other case that was considered the first conditions of confinement case, but didn’t use that exact phrase. The inclusion of that additional shows a limitation in my method, as not all conditions of confinement necessarily use that exact phrase.

      But, I also think that the time frame could be explained as a result of mass incarceration which began in the 1970s. It follows that cases which question conditions within prisons would appear as the result of more people being imprisoned. Some of the cases even mentioned growing prison populations as an explanation for the conditions, such as the practice of housing two inmates in a cell meant for only one person. While mass incarceration continues to be a fact of the American criminal justice system, the number of cases more recently does not reflect that, possibly because of the nature of the Supreme Court itself. The Court decides to hear cases based on whether or not they have already ruled on that specific topic, meaning that if they have already ruled on something that comes up in a future case, they aren’t going to listen to it (because the lower courts are just supposed to apply the prior Supreme Court rulings). The timeline of the cases I analyzed then reflects the initial prison boom, but as more conditions of confinement cases were heard, the Court likely began to decline them. I also didn’t look at lower court cases or appeals that were denied so its hard to conclusively say one way or another.

      I didn’t really see any shifts based off of the timeline of my cases, however, the references to prior cases, punishments, and definitions of punishment did show this larger change over time. Its also interesting because one of the standards the Court applies is based off of the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” In this way, the Court did look to “contemporary values” that they got more generally but also through more concrete ways like the recent laws that had been passed. Overall, the presence of individualism and retribution in these cases indicated that these were social facts that were engrained in the Court’s decisions.

      1. Thank you for your thoughtful reply! You brought up some additional good points. As you said, there would be less court cases based on this topic as more precedents are set, but it is interesting how almost half of all the cases you analyzed took place in the 1990s plus two more quite early in the 2000s.

  10. Libbie –

    I enjoyed learning about this topic you have worked so hard on this past year. Great job!

    Really interesting and timely topic.

    Looking forward to what next steps hold for you!

  11. Thank you for the introduction to Emile Durkheim – excellent overview of what must have been a very interesting project, as it illustrates how far we still need to go. Congrats and best of luck!

  12. Great job in explaining your project, and what an interesting project it is! As a lawyer who is fascinated by Supreme Court jurisprudence and history but who does not practice criminal or 8th Amendment law, I am curious about how large the majorities were in the decisions that you studied. Did you find the Court divided in many of the cases, and if so, were the divisions along the familiar conservative/liberal lines? Like you and one of your commenters, I too have been thinking about how individualism is influencing the current public health crisis our country is facing. Thank you for such an interesting and well done presentation!

  13. Libbie-
    This is a great project! Best of luck with whatever your future holds.

  14. Great job, Libbie! This is such a creative application of Durkheim to these Supreme Court cases. Thanks for sharing your study with the broader community!

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