Sentencing Commission Nominee Supported Handcuffing Prisoners To Hitching Posts Under Hot Sun

Judge William Pryor

Handcuffing a prisoner to a hitching post for seven hours, denying him water, and then taunting him about his thirst as the summer sun beat down upon him was a “a cost-effective, safe and relatively pain-free way to impel inmates to work,” according to the Alabama Department of Corrections, and a brief filed by former Alabama Attorney General William Pryor (R) in 2002 called upon the Supreme Court to defer to this determination. Thanks to President George W. Bush, Pryor is now a federal appellate judge. And, if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) gets his way, he will soon have even more control over what kinds of punishments are doled out to federal defendants.

The powerful United States Sentencing Commission sets the federal sentencing guidelines which form the basis of most criminal sentencing handed down by federal judges. Although there are some constitutional limits on the extent to which the Commission can increase federal sentences by altering the Guidelines, they remain one of the most potent vehicles for shaping federal sentences. Because no more than four of the Commission’s seven voting members may belong to the same party, the President traditionally names three members selected by leaders of his opposition party. According to the White House, McConnell selected Pryor to hold one of the Republican Party’s three seats.

There are many reasons why Judge Pryor is a bad choice for any position that requires him to show mercy and compassion, but his conduct in the hitching post case it one of the most blatant. Alabama’s practice of handcuffing prisoners to hitching posts reached the Supreme Court in 2002, and the Court’s description of the practice alleged in that case little doubt that it amounts to torture:

On May 11, 1995, while Hope was working in a chain gang near an interstate highway, he got into an argument with another inmate. Both men were taken back to the Limestone prison and handcuffed to a hitching post. Hope was released two hours later, after the guard captain determined that the altercation had been caused by the other inmate. During his two hours on the post, Hope was offered drinking water and a bathroom break every 15 minutes, and his responses to these offers were recorded on an activity log. Because he was only slightly taller than the hitching post, his arms were above shoulder height and grew tired from being handcuffed so high. Whenever he tried moving his arms to improve his circulation, the handcuffs cut into his wrists, causing pain and discomfort.

On June 7, 1995, Hope was punished more severely. He took a nap during the morning bus ride to the chaingang’s worksite, and when it arrived he was less than prompt in responding to an order to get off the bus. An exchange of vulgar remarks led to a wrestling match with a guard. Four other guards intervened, subdued Hope, handcuffed him, placed him in leg irons and transported him back to the prison where he was put on the hitching post. The guards made him take off his shirt, and he remained shirtless all day while the sun burned his skin. He remained attached to the post for approximately seven hours. During this 7 hour period, he was given water only once or twice and was given no bathroom breaks. At one point, a guard taunted Hope about his thirst. According to Hope’s affidavit: “[The guard] first gave water to some dogs, then brought the water cooler closer to me, removed its lid, and kicked the cooler over, spilling the water onto the ground.”

This is what Judge Pryor’s brief asked the Court to wave off as a “a cost-effective, safe and relatively pain-free way to impel inmates to work.” And Mitch McConnell believes that such a man should be allowed to decide which punishments are appropriate for all federal defendants.

Pryor is also a staunch defender of the death penalty, who even once argued that states should be free to execute the intellectually disabled. And he lobbied against a bill changing Alabama’s primary method of carrying out executions from electrocution to lethal injections, arguing that Alabama should not be “bullied by the fear that the Supreme Court” would declare the electric chair unconstitutional.