The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether employees of private prison operators can be sued for violating the constitutional rights of inmates.
The justices today said they will hear arguments from five Geo Group Inc. (GEO) employees seeking to stop a lawsuit by a California inmate who says he was mistreated by prison workers after breaking both elbows in an accident.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that inmates can’t press claims for damages against private prison companies that allegedly violate the Constitution. That case didn’t address claims against guards and other employees of those companies.
More than 34,000 federal inmates are being held in privately run facilities, according to the employees’ appeal. The Federal Bureau of Prisons houses inmates in 14 privately run facilities in eight states.
Richard Lee Pollard was serving time for drug and weapons charges in a Geo-run federal facility in Taft, California, in 2001 when he tripped over a cart and broke both elbows.
Among other allegations, he says that during his trip to an orthopedist, he was required to wear a so-called black box, a device that forces the inmate’s hands down and his arms together. In papers filed at the Supreme Court, Pollard’s lawyers say he had to “hold his broken elbows in an awkward and tremendously painful position” for 6 1/2 hours.
Pollard says that in the coming days he was denied a needed splint, forced to perform painful manual labor and refused assistance with hygiene and meals.
A San Francisco-based federal appeals court said Pollard’s suit could go forward against the employees, though not against Geo itself. Other appellate courts around the country have barred suits against employees as well.
The Geo employees told the high court that prisoner lawsuits over alleged constitutional violations are “already inundating the federal courts.” The appeals court’s “dramatic expansion of liability, combined with the increasing prevalence of private prison contractors, will only ensure that such litigation increases,” the employees argued.
A ruling favoring the Geo employees wouldn’t preclude inmates from pressing suits under state law.
The case is Minneci v. Pollard, 10-1104.