Supreme Court hears case on liability of private prison guards

Tom Ramstack – AHN News Legal Correspondent

Washington, DC, United States (AHN) – Private prison guards are facing the risk of more liability from mistreated inmates in a case the Supreme Court heard Tuesday.

California prisoner Richard Lee Pollard says he should have the same right to sue private prison guards as guards in government-run prisons.

The Supreme Court’s ruling is likely to have a profound impact on the fast-growing private prison industry.

The immunity from liability by inmates private prisons have enjoyed until now has allowed the companies to operate profitably and at reduced costs for states that hire them.

Private prisons hold about 34,000 federal inmates and many others in state and municipal prisons.

One of the largest private prison companies, GEO Group, reported 2010 revenue of $1.2 billion.

“Our core correctional, detention and treatment market segments continue to be driven by strong fundamental trends and increasing demand for bed space,” the company’s 2010 annual report says.

However, the prisoners said corporate profits never should take precedence over their constitutional right to sue the persons who injure them in federal court.

Pollard’s lawsuit is based on his claim that GEO Group prison guards mistreated him when he needed medical care after an accident, which he said violated his Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. The 54-year-old, who was convicted on narcotics and firearms charges, is now permanently disabled.

He was working in a Taft, CA, prison butcher shop when he tripped over a cart. He fractured both elbows and was treated at a medical clinic in Bakersfield, CA.

Instead of tending to his medical needs, Pollard said guards forced his arms into painful positions when they handcuffed him. He was denied splints he needed for two weeks, he said.

“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 said in a 2006 statement.

He sought $500,000 in a legal complaint he wrote himself.

A U.S. District Court judge in Fresno dismissed his lawsuit in 2007. Prison officials accused Pollard of being a jailhouse lawyer who filed frivolous lawsuits.

However, University of Richmond law professor John Preis came across Pollard’s case while researching issues of private prison liability.

He agreed to appeal the case for Pollard pro bono.

Reis argued Tuesday that the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1971 case of Webster Bivens should also apply to lawsuits against private prison guards.

The case involved New York City resident Webster Bivens, who was mistreated by narcotics agents during an improper search. He sued the federal agents.

Until then, federal employees were immune from lawsuits that Congress did not authorize. The Supreme Court changed the rule of law to say federal employees could be sued if they violate someone else’s constitutional rights.

Reis said the mistreatment of Pollard by the private prison guards was the same kind of violation of constitutional rights that should make the guards liable for the injury.

Supreme Court justices on Tuesday repeatedly asked Reis why his client did not file a negligence lawsuit in state court. If Pollard’s federal lawsuit fails, the case will be dismissed.

The attorney already has met with success before California’s 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court said Pollard could sue the guards because “there is no principled basis to distinguish” the private prison from a government-run prison.

“If those employees demonstrated deliberate indifference to Pollard’s serious medical needs, the resulting deprivation was caused … by the federal government’s exercise of its power to punish Pollard by incarceration,” the 9th Circuit’s decision said.

Pollard’s claim is running into tough opposition from the private prison and the Obama administration.

They say prisoners should be allowed to sue only in state court.

State courts tend to decide lawsuits based on state law rather than federal constitutional issues.

The Obama administration says the private prison guards are not federal employees who should be judged by the standard applied to federal workers.

“To imply an additional federal remedy, as (Pollard) urges, would … subject employees of private prison contractors to a double dose of liability under state and federal law,” U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. wrote in a Supreme Court brief that supports the private prison guards.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in the case is expected early next year.

The case is Minneci v. Pollard, Docket No. 10-1104.

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