While Congress has largely dropped the ball on criminal justice reform, there is a glimmer of hope that the Supreme Court may yet erect some limits on the government’s police power – specifically, on qualified immunity.

According to Reason’s Billy Binion:

…prison guards escorted a naked Trent Taylor, then an inmate at the John T. Montford Psychiatric Facility Unit in Lubbock, Texas, to his cell. That cell, he contends, was covered in “massive” amounts of human feces—on the ceiling, on the floor, on the walls, and on the windows. He didn’t eat for four days because he was anxious he’d risk contamination. Nor did he drink anything after observing that feces were “packed inside the water faucet.”

He next moved to a seclusion cell, one that came without a toilet, bed, or water fountain. Its only contents: sewage, built up from a clogged drain on the floor. When Taylor asked to use the restroom, the guards denied his request and told him to urinate in the drain. He would then have to sleep in his own urine, since the floor was already steeped in waste, and since he was without a bed. After 24 hours, he urinated on himself involuntarily, and slept, naked, in sewage.

Taylor sued, alleging a violation of his 8th Amendment rights. Both a U.S. District Court and the federal appeals court agreed the situation was terrible, but granted the guards immunity anyway.

The Supreme Court ruled 7-1 the guards obviously violated Taylor’s rights, and can be sued:

“The Fifth Circuit erred in granting the officers qualified immunity on this basis,” wrote the Supreme Court in an unsigned opinion. The newly-minted Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate, and the lone dissenter was Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. The panel added that “no reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time.”

A small victory for common sense, the 8th Amendment, and – possibly — criminal justice reform.

Image Credit: Joe Ravi [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons