Commitment to TYC not considered cruel and unusual
punishment.[In the Matter of J.M.](09-3-6)
On June 16, 2009, the Texarkana Court of Appeals held
that juvenile failed to establish that his commitment to TYC was cruel and
09-3-6. In the Matter of J.M., No.
06-08-00087-CV, ___ S.W.3d ___, 2009 WL 1658078 (Tex.App.-Texarkana, 6/16/09).
Facts: After having amassed a rather impressive
record of offenses, J.M., a juvenile, was placed on probation for felony theft
of a motorcycle. On July 7, 2008, the State filed its motion to modify the
disposition, alleging that J.M. violated the terms of his probation by
committing misdemeanor theft and resisting arrest, among other violations. The
trial court found sufficient evidence supported the allegations and modified the
disposition, sending J.M. to the Texas Youth Commission (TYC). J.M. moved for a
new trial. In response to the motion for new trial, the trial court agreed that
an error had been made in the judgment and reformed its judgment to correct that
error. J.M. then filed another motion for new trial, this time unsuccessfully.
It is from the order sending J .M. to TYC that this appeal is being sought.
On appeal, J.M. presents several points of error. One
of which he contends the conditions present at the TYC facility constitute cruel
and unusual punishment.
At a hearing on his motion for new trial, J.M.
testified to a laundry list of unpleasant occurrences he has experienced while
incarcerated at TYC: (1) He was solicited on four or five occasions to join a
gang at TYC's McLennan County Orientation and Assessment Unit. (2) He has
witnessed a fight every day that he has been there, although he has not engaged
in any himself. (3) He testified that there are usually only two staff members
(usually women) to supervise the twenty-five boys in each unit or dormitory and
that the staff acts as if they are not really concerned about the fighting. (4)
On several occasions, the juvenile in the bed next to J.M. threatened to shank
him with a filed-down four-to-five-inch screw and then to put his penis in
J.M.'s ear. Although J.M. reported the threats to staff members, they took no
action to remedy it. After having reported the situation to the supervisor and
asking to be moved, J.M. was only moved to the other side of the room. (5) He
was threatened with violence for his decision to not join a gang.
On cross-examination, J.M. confirmed that there are
surveillance cameras installed on the premises. He suggests that as a result of
the threats against him, there was a dormitory shakedown, during which the staff
recovered five screws in the possession of the person who had threatened J.M.
J.M. went on to say that his nemesis had surreptitiously placed one of those
screws under J.M.'s own bed and that the other young man had been sent to a
security lockup for twenty-four hours as a disciplinary measure. J.M. admitted
that this was the only specific person with whom he had continued, identifiable
problems. He did, however, report more general conflicts with the unwanted gang
recruitment. He testified that the constant fighting results in constant
reporting of those fights.
Held: Affirmed as corrected
Opinion: The Eighth Amendment prohibits the
infliction of punishment that can be characterized as cruel and unusual.
U.S. Const. amend. VIII;
Tex. Const. art. I, Â§ 13.
Juvenile cases, though classified as civil proceedings, are quasi-criminal in
nature and frequently concern constitutional rights and procedures normally
found only in criminal law.
In re H.V.,
252 S.W.3d 319, 323 (Tex.2008). Due to
this similarity, we examine cases involving claims of cruel and unusual
punishment in the context of confinement for criminal offenses for guidance
here. Confinement in a state-prison facility is a form of punishment subject to
scrutiny under the Eighth Amendment. The Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel
and unusual punishment was made applicable to the states by the Due Process
Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
We note that the Constitution does not mandate
comfortable prisons. See
452 U.S. at 349.
Today the Eighth Amendment prohibits punishments
which, although not physically barbarous, involve the unnecessary and
wanton infliction of pain, or are grossly disproportionate to the severity
of the crime. Among unnecessary and wanton inflictions of pain are those
that are totally without penological justification.
Id. at 346 (citations omitted).
There should not be a gross disproportionality between
the conditions of confinement and the severity of the offense or condition which
led to the confinement. See id. at 347.
J.M. does not address the seriousness of the offenses
with which he was charged or the persistence of his conduct that precipitated
the order of commitment to TYC. Further, the thrust of his argument does not
advance the theory that he has been singled out for any treatment by TYC
officials as any punitive measure. Rather, his allegations seem to rest upon the
contention that the generally dangerous or frightening conditions to which
virtually all those incarcerated at TYC are subjected during their stays amounts
to the imposition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Much of the caselaw defining the term cruel and
unusual rise from actions in tort wherein inmates in prison situations have
sought to recover damages from the prison officials for what they have alleged
were their subjection to cruel and unusual punishment. While not controlling
here, it provides some guidance in drawing the parameters of the term cruel and
In order to prove a claim of Eighth Amendment cruel
and unusual punishment in a tort case against prison officials involving the
prison-conditions context, an inmate must demonstrate: (1) that the
deprivation alleged was sufficiently serious and (2) that there was an
unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.
In cases involving a failure to prevent harm, the
plaintiff must demonstrate an incarceration under conditions posing a
substantial risk of serious harm. In order to be [O]bjectively, 'sufficiently
serious' ... a prison official's act or omission must result in the denial of
the 'minimal civilized measure of life's necessities.'
511 U.S. at 834 (citations omitted).
Although routine discomfort inherent in the prison environment is inadequate to
satisfy an Eighth Amendment inquiry, only those deprivations denying 'the
minimal civilized measure of life's necessities' ... are sufficiently grave to
form the basis of an Eighth Amendment violation.
Wilson v. Seiter,
501 U.S. 294, 298, 111 S.Ct. 2321, 115 L.Ed.2d 271 (1991)
452 U.S. at 347). In determining whether a
constitutional violation has occurred, we must consider the circumstances,
nature, and duration of a deprivation of these necessities.
An inmate does have an Eighth Amendment right to be
reasonably protected from the constant threat of assaults and violence by fellow
inmates. A pervasive risk of harm is deemed to exist when inmates are assaulted
by other prisoners with such frequency that there is a reasonable fear for their
safety and jail personnel are reasonably apprised of the existence of the threat
to inmate safety and the need for protective action. see also
State v. Mungia,
119 S.W.3d 814, 817 (Tex.Crim.App.2003)
(concluding no constitutional violation had occurred where record showed only
the possibility appellee may be killed if sent to prison).
In determining whether the conditions of confinement
violate the Eighth Amendment, the courts consider all of the circumstances of
incarceration in order to arrive at a decision as to whether the circumstances
affront contemporary standards of decency. The several conditions that might
lend themselves to finding an overall violation must have a mutually enforcing
effect that results in the deprivation of a single, identifiable human need such
as food, warmth, or exercise.
Here, the evidence upon which J.M. relies is primarily
anecdotal, showing attempts at intimidation by other TYC detainees and repeated
fights among those other detainees, all of which apparently has caused him to
fear for his safety. He has not alleged that he has actually suffered any
physical harm by either other detainees or action on the part of TYC officials
to unreasonably discipline him.
For the most part, people who are prone to obey rules
and to follow the general mores of society are unlikely to be housed in TYC; it
is not a church camp. It is likely that J.M.'s experience is not substantially
different from most other persons in the custody of TYC and he is, in essence,
requesting that we find that anyone who is placed in the custody of TYC has been
deprived of constitutional rights. J.M.'s testimony and the quarterly reports
concerning the reporting of incidences made within TYC do not establish an
Eighth Amendment violation. The public has heard that TYC has experienced a good
deal of safety concerns and problems with reporting of incidences, especially
concerning misconduct by staff. However, J.M.'s account of his treatment
and experience in the McLennan Unit fails to demonstrate the evidence of cruel
and unusual punishment. According to J.M., he did report the threats made from
the other juvenile concerning the shank and threatened sexual assault. The
record suggests that at some point following his report or reports, the staff
conducted a search of the dormitory and recovered the shanks, one of which was
found under J.M.'s bed. Further, J.M. was moved away from that particular
juvenile. While it is not entirely clear, it appears there is a common sleeping
room at the facility, and J.M. was moved to the other side of that common area.
J.M.'s specific testimony concerning the threats while in the facility are
limited to the threats from this juvenile which, from the record, appear to have
been addressed. His more general testimony regarding the gang recruitment
provides very little detail other than a threat of being accosted if he did not
join. The record is not clear that he reported those incidents.
It appears that J.M.'s stay at the facility has not
been a pleasant one; the Constitution does not guarantee that it will be. It
does appear the staff has taken measures to remove or reduce the risk to J.M.
posed by the threatening juvenile. So, now that the search removed the shanks
with which he was threatened and removed J.M. away from that juvenile, J.M.
cannot establish that he continues to experience a sufficiently serious risk of
harm. Further, and more definitively, J.M.'s contention fails to establish that
TYC officials did not take steps to address J.M.'s concerns for safety, and TYC
cannot be said to have acted in reckless disregard of the threats posed to J.M.
We overrule J.M.'s point of error concerning cruel and unusual punishment.
Further, we are mindful of our role in the
administration of justice. When reviewing policies designed to preserve internal
order, discipline, and security, a court should accord broad deference to prison
administrators regarding the reasonableness of the scope, the manner, the place,
and the justification of a particular policy. In other words, courts should play
a very limited role in the administration of detention facilities.
Conclusion: Because the trial court did not abuse
its discretion by modifying J.M.'s disposition and committing him to TYC,
because the modification order is sufficiently specific, and because J.M. has
failed to establish that his commitment to TYC is cruel and unusual punishment
or is a violation of his right to equal protection of the law, we overrule his
points of error. J.M. is correct in that the modification order contains an
error when it states that theft, in this situation, is punishable by
confinement; that error, however, does not affect the validity of the order or
the outcome of the case. We have and do exercise the authority to correct the
trial court's order to reflect that the offense of theft, on these facts, is
not, as the order states, punishable by confinement. We affirm the judgment as