WASHINGTON — In a case arising out of California’s San Joaquin Valley, the Supreme Court on Tuesday limited the ability of inmates to file federal lawsuits for injuries incurred in privately run prisons.
Closely watched by the fast-growing private prison industry, the court in an 8-1 ruling concluded inmates are already adequately protected by their ability to file state lawsuits.
“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 their treatment violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Privately run facilities currently hold about 34,000 federal prisoners across the country. 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 New York City resident Webster Bivens, who was roughed up by narcotics agents, the Supreme Court ruled that some lawsuits may proceed if constitutionally protected rights have been violated by the federal employee.
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 were essentially serving as agents of the federal government. He convinced only one member of the court, 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 being convicted on 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 facility 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.
"The functioning of my forearm is never going to allow me to return to my previous job as an auto body shop (worker) and mechanic," Pollard stated in a September 2006 declaration
Pollard started writing his own complaints, originally seeking $500,000. Skeptical officials labeled him a "frequent filer," a prisoner who clogged the courthouse with repeated lawsuits. Fresno, Calif.-based U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger dismissed Pollard's suit in 2007.
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 state law, while acknowledging that “state tort law may sometimes prove less generous” than a federal lawsuit.
Pollard was due to be released late last year.
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