Are Spider Bites "Cruel and Unusual Punishment"?

By Ronald L. Scott

Thirty prisoners in the Galveston County Jail have been bitten by brown recluse spiders in the last four months. The bite of the brown recluse spider can be painful, although it is rarely fatal. The spider’s venom destroys the flesh around the bite site, often causing a spreading, ulcerated wound that may take months to heal. Infrequently, reactions include fever, chills, joint pain and convulsions.

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution arguably requires that prison officials take effective steps to eradicate the spiders. The Eighth Amendment provides: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." The Supreme Court established in Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104 (1976), that "deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the ‘unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain,’ proscribed by the Eighth Amendment." The Court applied the Eighth Amendment in this context because prisoners are dependent on correctional officials for needed medical care. The Court noted that an inmate must rely on prison authorities to treat his medical needs, and if the authorities fail to act appropriately, those needs will simply not be met. The "deliberate indifference" standard applies to situations where "the indifference is manifested by prison doctors in their response to the prisoner’s needs or by prison guards in intentionally denying or delaying access to medical care or intentionally interfering with the treatment once prescribed." The Supreme Court said the Eighth Amendment embodies concepts of dignity, civilized standards, humanity, and decency, and that punishments that are incompatible with the evolving standards of decency that reflect the progress of a maturing society or which involve unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain violate the Eighth Amendment.

In the Galveston situation, there is no allegation that jail officials failed to properly treat inmates suffering from bites. Most prisoners who have been bitten are initially treated with antibiotic injections at the jail, although some required intravenous antibiotic treatments given at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Although treatment for the bites is usually successful, the best medical care requires prevention through eradication of the spiders.

The Estelle prohibition of "deliberate indifference to serious medical needs" can be demonstrated to require specific prevention measures for those at risk of being bitten. Courts have recognized that exposure of inmates to identifiable health threats may inplicate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. For example, exposure of prisoners to contagiously ill persons can constitute cruel and unusual punishment. At least one court has held that confinement of a non-smoking prisoner in a cell with a smoker might violate the Eighth Amendment.

Obviously, jail officials would like to eradicate the spiders, but efforts so far have proved unsuccessful. Pesticides are effective only if applied directly to the spiders, and the spiders may not even absorb pesticides through their feet or claws. Also, pesticide does not kill the spider’s eggs. So far, officials have rejected the idea of evacuating the jail as part of the effort to control the infestation. However, some prisoners may suffer from weakened immune systems or special sensitivity to the bites. If a death were to occur after four months and thirty bites, a plaintiff’s attorney will undoubtedly argue that the jail officials’ efforts constitute "deliberate indifference to serious medical needs," i.e., "too little, too late."