WASHINGTON — An inmate's federal lawsuit against workers at the privately run California prison where he was injured in an accident appeared unlikely to sway Supreme Court justices on Tuesday.
In a case closely watched by the nation's fast-growing private prison industry, justices sounded skeptical about expanding inmates' right to sue in federal court. If prisoners have problems, justices suggested, state courts should suffice.
"Our law is clear," Justice Antonin Scalia said. "If there is an adequate remedy, we don't invent one."
The court's skepticism, moreover, spanned the usual ideological divide during the hour-long oral argument, as liberal and conservative justices echoed some of the same points.
"If the true appropriate remedy, and the better remedy from your client's point of view, is a state law action, we should just say bring a state law (complaint)," Justice Elena Kagan told the inmate's attorney, University of Richmond law professor John Preis.
Driving the point home, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. told Preis that a state lawsuit might "work equally as well, or perhaps more effectively," than a potential federal remedy.
Preis represents inmate Richard Lee Pollard, who was injured at the privately run Taft Correctional Institution in 2001. Pollard hurt his arms in a butcher shop accident but says mistreatment aggravated the damage.
"After he suffered his injuries, he was put back on his work detail before his injuries were healed," Preis told the justices. "He was also immediately after being injured ... forced to wear particular handcuffs that pushed his arms in a way that would cause extraordinary pain and was unnecessary."
Located in California's southern San Joaquin Valley, west of Bakersfield, the Taft facility was at the time of Pollard's incarceration operated by a private firm called Wackenhut Corrections Corp. The company is now called the GEO Group.
Privately run facilities operated by the GEO Group, Corrections Corp. of America and other firms currently hold about 34,000 federal prisoners, about 16 percent of the nation's total federal prison population. Private facilities also hold about half of the approximately 363,000 federal immigration detainees locked up annually.
Tens of thousands of additional state and local prisoners are likewise held in privately run facilities.
Usually, federal employees are immune from lawsuits unless Congress has specifically authorized them. But in a 1971 case involving a Cleveland man named Webster Bivens, the Supreme Court ruled that some lawsuits may proceed if constitutionally protected rights have been violated by the federal employee.
The private prisons raise the question of whether federal contractors are subject to these same potential federal lawsuits as federal workers. In a previous ruling, the Supreme Court said the prison corporations were not susceptible to claims of constitutional violations. Pollard's case focuses on the individual employees.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Pollard, reasoning that "there is no principled basis to distinguish" the privately run Taft facility from a government-run prison. The Obama administration is allied with the prison employees, in reasoning that inmates are adequately protected through state courts.
"We don't think that there is really any serious dispute in this case that there were adequate alternative remedies," argued Jonathan S. Franklin, the attorney for the private prison employees. "California law is, further, more protective of prisoners."
Pollard is currently on home detention in Washington state, with about one more month to serve before he's released. A court decision is expected before June.
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