The Law: Cruel and Unusual

The line between proper and "cruel and unusual" punishment for prison inmates is frequently hazy. But Federal Judge Robert Merhige Jr. last week had no difficulty deciding that Virginia Corrections Division Director W.K. Cunningham had crossed it. In a highly unusual ruling, he ordered Cunningham to pay $21,265 in damages to three former inmates because of practices "of such a shocking nature that no reasonable man could have believed that they were constitutional."

In 1971 Merhige handed down a sharply worded ruling that found the state's prison officials guilty of "grave disregard of constitutional guarantees." This time he cited specific illegal...

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