The Supreme Court yesterday began considering whether prison rape victims seeking punitive damages from guards who put them in cells with inmates likely to harm them must show malice on the guards' part.

The case involves the rape in 1976 by two inmates of an 18-year-old youth at the Missouri Intermediate Reformatory, a medium-security prison near Jefferson City.

With thousands of suits alleging prison violence pending nationally, the question of proving malice by guards is gaining prominence.

An indeterminate number of those suits are by prison rape victims alleging wrongdoing by guards, according to Steven May, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union's prison project.

The case heard yesterday began in 1976 when the then 18-year-old was serving a sentence for burglary, robbery and stealing. From the start, the 5-foot-8, 130-pounder could not protect himself from other inmates and was beaten numerous times, receiving black eyes and cuts, according to court documents. As a result, the youth was moved to a "special treatment" section for inmates susceptible to physical abuse. Then the youth violated a rule and was moved again to a dormitory cell where he was later raped, the documents said.

In oral argument yesterday, the victim's attorney, Bradley Lockenvitz, argued that guard William Henry Smith was liable for punitive damages because, knowing that the youth could not defend himself, he nevertheless put into the youth's dormitory cell an inmate being punished for harming other inmates.

A third inmate who had been moved from general population sections of the prison for violent acts was already in the cell, according to the documents.

"He put two hungry lions in the same cage with a lamb," Lockenvitz said, adding that in a lower court a guard had testified that it was "common sense" to separate inmates who had been in the "special treatment" section from inmates out of general population areas.

Robert Presson, a Missouri assistant attorney general, asked the court to define the standard for punitive damages, saying existing cases do not make the standard "explicit." He said punitive damages should be assessed against guards only when it can be demonstrated that the guards "intended to deprive someone of his civil rights."

Lockenvitz argued that Presson was "asking us to bear an impossible burden, to look into the head of William H. Smith." Lockenvitz argued that the current standard for punitive damages is "reckless or callous disregard" of another's rights, which he said implies malice.

"I'm asking the court not to initiate a new standard but to maintain the standard that's been around all along," Lockenvitz said.

Missouri took the case to the Supreme Court after a state appeals court affirmed a lower-court decision to fine the guard $5,000 in punitive damages.

Prison rape victims can file civil suits against guards and prison officials under a federal civil rights law stating that any person who causes another person to be deprived of his constitutional rights may be liable for damages.

The victim in the current case is out of prison and cutting wood in Columbia, Mo.