Ruling makes it tougher for inmates to sue officials over prison violence

June 07, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court raised a bit higher yesterday the legal shield around prison officials who are sued by inmates over homosexual rape, other behind-the-walls violence, or living conditions that threaten life or health.

The wardens, deputies and guards who run prisons, the court ruled unanimously, cannot be sued just because violent or unhealthy conditions exist and those officials should have known about them and done something.

If an official is not aware of "a substantial risk of serious harm" to prisoners, that official cannot be sued even if the threatening conditions were "obvious," the court declared. An inmate must prove that a prison official knew of such a risk and also that he disregarded it.

After struggling for years to fashion a more specific formula to define prisoners' right to sue over the perils of life behind bars, the court in a 25-page opinion offered lower courts a detailed, point-by-point blueprint for considering inmate lawsuits over prison or jail conditions.

The result is that such inmate lawsuits will be allowed only where a responsible official knows personally the facts that make prison life too risky, and where that official simply disregards the facts and the risk, according to the ruling.

But the court eased the impact of its decision by saying that inmates who are assaulted need not prove that the warden or other prison officers knew that the particular victim was at risk, or knew which inmate might rape or assault that individual.

The court also said it was not necessary for an inmate who was assaulted to prove that the official knew that the inmate in fact would become a victim.

Illustrating those points, the court said that if homosexual rape in a given prison is so common and uncontrolled that potential victims dare not sleep, officials could be sued on the theory that this was a known risk, even if the officials "could not guess beforehand precisely who would attack whom."

In an opinion written by Justice David H. Souter, the justices did speak strongly against prison rape, suggesting that the ruling was not condoning it: "Being violently assaulted in prison is simply not part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society."

The court decision left open the possibility of lawsuits in situations other than rape or other violent assault. It said that officials who are indifferent to serious health risks may be sued.

The decision was issued in a case involving a transsexual inmate, Dee Farmer, who was sent to prison after being convicted in federal court in Maryland for credit card fraud. He is now held at the government's medical center for federal prisoners in Springfield, Mo.

With the help of a Harvard law student and a prisoner-rights organization, Farmer sued prison officials over being beaten and raped at knifepoint by a fellow inmate at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., after his arrival there in 1989.

He contended that officials at Terre Haute and at another prison that arranged his transfer to Terre Haute knew that, as a transsexual who has had sex-change therapy and who wears makeup and wears clothes in a feminine style, he was at risk of being raped in a male prison.

The Terre Haute prison was known to be a place of extreme violence and rape, his lawsuit contended. Lower courts threw out his claim that prison officials could be sued because they "should have known" the risks of rape.

Similarly, the Supreme Court declined to adopt the "should have known" approach to prison officials' liability, saying it was what they actually knew that counted.

Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in a separate opinion for himself, interpreted the decision as putting prison officials on notice that they may not "take lightly" their duty to "provide for the safety of inmates."

Frank B. Dunbaugh, an Annapolis attorney who represents a national advocacy group, Stop Prisoner Rape, said the ruling invites more lawsuits to clarify what legal duties prison officials now have. But it also appeared to "open the door to a deeper and more careful consideration of the problem" of rape and other prison violence, he said.

The ruling was one of a handful the court issued yesterday as it worked toward ending its term near the end of this month.

Ruling on recidivists

In a 6-3 ruling that appears likely to make it easier for repeat criminal offenders to be given stiffer sentences under "three-strikes-and-you're-out" proposals now gaining favor, the court said that an earlier conviction sometimes may be used to justify a heavier sentence for a later crime, even if the individual had no lawyer in the earlier case.

So long as the earlier case did not result in jail time, the conviction is valid as a basis for increasing a sentence under the U.S. sentencing guidelines, the court declared in a 6-3 ruling written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

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