Rights Related to Searches, Seizures, and Personal Privacy. Although prisoners retain certain fundamental rights of personal privacy, prison officials may search prisoners' cells randomly without violating the Fourth Amendment because prisoners have no reasonable expectation of privacy within their cells. A seizure of an inmate's property by prison officials does not constitute a Fourth Amendment violation if the seizure serves legitimate institutional interests. Additionally, a parole officer or other peace officer may search a parolee at any time. Courts closely scrutinize the constitutionality of strip and body-cavity searches by balancing the government's need for a particular search against the extent of the invasion suffered by the prisoner.

Prisoners retain some privacy rights with respect to decisions about family life and reproduction, but these rights may be limited by valid penological interests. The right to privacy in preventing nonconsensual disclosures of medical conditions may also be limited by valid penological interests.

The Eighth Amendment protects prisoners against cruel and unusual punishment during confinement. In reviewing a prisoner's Eighth Amendment claim, the Supreme Court has distinguished between two kinds of official conduct: (1) that which is part of the punishment formally imposed for a crime, and (2) that which does not purport to be punishment, such as conditions of confinement, medical care, and restoration of control over inmates. Formally imposed punishment is unconstitutional if it is “totally without penological justification,” such as “the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain,” or punishment “grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime.” The Supreme Court has stated, however, that harsh conditions and rough disciplinary treatment are part of the price that convicted individuals must pay for their offenses against society. A prisoner challenging official conduct that is not part of the formal penalty for a crime must demonstrate (1) a “sufficiently serious” deprivation, and (2) that officials acted with a “sufficiently culpable state of mind.” Courts have found a sufficiently serious deprivation where a prisoner was deprived of “the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities,” such as food, warmth, or exercise.

Prison officials' actions in furtherance of legitimate penological interests do not reflect a culpable state of mind and thus do not generally constitute cruel and unusual punishment. With respect to conditions of confinement, the “deliberate indifference” test is used to determine whether officials acted with a sufficiently culpable state of mind. Under this standard, prison officials may be found liable for denying humane conditions of confinement only if they knew that an inmate faced a substantial risk of serious harm and disregarded that risk by failing to take reasonable measures to abate it.

A prisoner seeking a remedy for unsafe conditions need not wait for a tragic event before obtaining relief. The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 (PLRA) does, however, prohibit an inmate from taking legal action with respect to prison conditions until “such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.”

Alleged deficiencies in medical care and facilities require a showing of officials' deliberate indifference toward “serious medical needs” and risks. Officials' “mere negligence” or medical malpractice does not constitute deliberate indifference.

When analyzing Eighth Amendment claims that allege excessive force, courts consider (1) the objective severity of the inmate's injury and (2) the subjective culpability of the official. The objective element requires consideration of whether the wrongdoing was “harmful enough” to implicate the Eighth Amendment. This is a low bar; a prisoner need not prove that he or she has sustained significant injury.

The subjective element requires that the officials acted with a sufficiently culpable state of mind. Use of force by prison officials may constitute cruel and unusual punishment if the force amounts to “inflicted unnecessary and wanton pain.” This depends on “whether force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline or [whether it was applied] maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm.” Relevant factors for the subjective element include (1) the need for the application of force; (2) the relationship between the need and amount of force used; (3) the extent of the threat to the safety of prison staff and other inmates as reasonably perceived by a responsible official; and (4) efforts by prison officials to temper the severity of a forceful response.