Majority says state tort law is avenue for suing privately run facilities
WASHINGTON – In a case arising out of California’s San Joaquin Valley, the Supreme Court on Tuesday limited inmates’ ability to file federal lawsuits for injuries incurred in privately run prisons.
Closely watched by the fast-growing private prison industry, the court concluded in an 8-1 ruling that inmates’ ability to file state lawsuits already protects them adequately.
“In the case of a privately employed defendant, state tort law provides an alternative existing process capable of protecting the constitutional interests at stake,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority.
The ruling extends well beyond the fate of Richard Lee Pollard, a repeat felon who did time in Kern County, Calif.
It’s a significant victory for the companies that operate privately run jails and prisons, and a marked limitation for inmates who contend that their treatment violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Usually, federal employees are immune from lawsuits unless Congress has specifically authorized them. But in a 1971 case that involved New York City resident Webster Bivens, who was roughed up by narcotics agents, the Supreme Court ruled that some lawsuits may proceed if the federal employee has violated constitutionally protected rights.
Pollard argued that he should be able to file a similar “Bivens” lawsuit in federal court, reasoning that the employees in the privately run prison essentially were serving as agents of the federal government. He convinced only one member of the court, however, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“Were Pollard incarcerated in a federal or state-operated facility, he would have a federal remedy for the Eighth Amendment violations he alleges,” Ginsburg wrote in a brief dissent. “I would not deny the same character of relief to Pollard, a prisoner placed by federal contract in a privately operated prison.”
In April 1996, as a prior felon, Pollard was sentenced to 20 years after he was convicted of methamphetamine and firearms charges. He landed at the Taft Correctional Institution, west of Bakersfield, Calif.
The GEO Group, then under a different name, had the contract to run the Taft institution from 1997 through 2007.
Pollard was working in the prison’s butcher shop in 2001 when he tripped over a cart. He was diagnosed with possible fractures of both elbows and sent to a Bakersfield clinic. Pollard said guards forced his arms into painful positions when he was handcuffed and left him unsplinted for two weeks. He says he suffered permanent damage.
In the court’s 12-page majority opinion Tuesday, Breyer reasoned that Pollard had plenty of opportunities to file a conventional negligence lawsuit under California law, while acknowledging that “state tort law may sometimes prove less generous” than a federal lawsuit.