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Suing a Private Prison for Injury or Abuse

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

New U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently reversed prior Department of Justice guidance directing the federal government to reduce its reliance on private prisons to house federal inmates. While this was good news for shareholders of private prison company stocks, it looks like bad news for American taxpayers and inmates: as the DOJ conceded when it announced the phase out last year, private prisons "do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department's Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security."

So what happens if you're injured or mistreated in a private prison? Do you have any legal recourse?

The State of Prison Injury Lawsuits

Unfortunately, most of the options available to current or former inmates to sue for injuries sustained in jail are limited to state or federally operated facilities. Lawsuits under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act (often used to recover for injuries from police brutality) can only be filed against state and local government employees -- not federal agents or by private parties.

And while so-called Bivens actions allow a prisoner to sue federal government entities and their employees for violations of either constitutional rights or federal law that cause injuries, such suits are not applicable to private prisons and their employees. So the legal rights of inmates injured in private prisons are limited when it comes to suing for their injuries.

State Lawsuits for Prison Injuries

One option is to sue for compensation for prison or jail injuries under state tort law. Theories of negligence and battery can work equally as well against private prison companies as they do against other private businesses.

A negligence claim may be available in cases where prison staff failed to maintain safe conditions in the prison or failed to protect inmates from other inmates. In order to demonstrate negligence on the part of a private prison, you would need to prove four main elements:

  1. Duty: That the private prison owed you a duty of care;
  2. Breach: That the private prison failed to meet this duty of care;
  3. Causation: That this breach (and not some other action) caused your injuries; and
  4. Damages: That your injuries occurred and can be compensated for.

You can also sue private prison staff in civil court for assault and/or battery. Intentional tort lawsuits may be more appropriate for threats and harmful bodily contact.

The ACLU has uncovered numerous instances of inmate abuse and neglect at private prisons. If you've been injured in prison, contact an attorney today.

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