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Are Prisons Liable for Inmate Attacks?

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. | Last updated on

It's understood that prison is and should be unpleasant. Still, that doesn't mean prisoners have no protections. The protections are more limited than for a free person, of course.

Still, in the case of an inmate attack, under some circumstances, there are claims that even the imprisoned can make. Let's take a look at vicarious liability for institutions of incarceration.

Prison Negligence for Violence

First, let's make some important distinctions. Where the inmate is incarcerated and how the attack and injury occurs will dictate what claims can be made and whether an institution can be held vicariously liable for its failure to protect. So, the basic breakdown is this: there are federal prisons and detention centers, as well as state prisons and jails, public institutions and private ones run by contractors.

Institutional liability for negligence resulting in injury due to inmate violence is limited. Beyond all the elements of negligence that would normally need to be shown -- duty, breach, causation, and harm -- federal law limits vicarious liability to governmental institutions, not private prisons and detention centers.

That can present a major hitch in a prospective prison negligence suit, as private contractors manage many institutions. The bar applies to employees of private contractors as well, ruling out a sizable number of prison guards. Still, there are state tort claims available and creative approaches to formulating a claim.

Constitutional Question

Apart from the institutional barriers, there are legal hurdles to overcome. Unless there is a constitutional violation or a violation of federal law, federal prisoner claims are barred. An example of a constitutional claim is that the prison engaged in cruel and unusual punishment.

In the context of a prison attack scenario, plaintiffs might argue that failure to safeguard them inside the institution amounted to a kind of cruel and unusual punishment. For example, two inmates in Maine claimed that failure to relieve prisoners of padlocks, although they were used in attacks, was a form of negligence resulting in cruel and unusual punishment. The claim failed but the warden is no longer at the prison.

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