Landmark Case

Austin v. James

Case Number

95-CV-637

Ending unconstitutional prison practices
Shackled at the ankles, men in chains cut grass, trimmed bushes, and picked up trash along Alabama highways. Five to a squad, the men shuffled along, pulling and chafing each other's legs while breaking rocks and swinging blades, sometimes drawing blood. The prisoners remained joined at the ankles even during their most private moments.

Tempers flared. Inmates complained. Then one man was shot and killed by a guard after a fight with another prisoner to whom he was chained. Faced with the death of one inmate, mounting reports of injuries, fights and other security concerns, the Department of Corrections agreed to the Center's demand to permanently ban chain gangs, thereby settling that portion of the lawsuit.

During the course of the litigation, the Center had discovered other disturbing prison practices. For men who disrupted the work squads or refused to be chained to four other men, there was the equally barbaric practice of handcuffing the disruptors to a device known as the hitching post, a stationary metal rail. While chained to the post, the inmate's hands were raised and he remained in that position in the Alabama heat, usually for several hours, and sometimes without water or bathroom breaks.

The hitching post claim went to trial in 1996 and the Federal Court ruled that the manner in which the hitching post was used in Alabama, the only state in the nation to do so, violated the 8th Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment."

Larry Hope, one of the plaintiffs in the case, filed a separate lawsuit for damages the same year. In 2002, the Center represented Mr. Hope in his appeal to the United States Supreme Court. In Hope v. Pelzer, the Supreme Court ruled that the hitching post was unconstitutional and that an inmate who suffered injuries while chained to the post had the right to sue for damages.