Inmate Against Inmate Assaults: Proving Liability for Failure to Protect

Jails are can be dangerous places.  Unfortunately, inmate-against-inmate assaults (including sexual assaults) do occur.  Some assaults result in extremely serious injuries, or even death.  When such assaults occur, jail officials can face legal liability under the Constitution for failing to prevent them, but only in limited circumstances.

The Supreme Court has held that jail officials must take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of inmates.  In particular, according to the United States Supreme Court, jail officials have an affirmative duty “to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners.”  This duty is not absolute, however.  Under the Constitution, a jail officer is only liable where he or she was aware of a risk of substantial serious harm, but disregarded that risk in such a way that the officer can be said to have been “deliberately indifferent” to the risk.  In other words, the jail officer must know of a risk of serious harm but fail to take action knowing that the assault might occur.  Although this is a high standard, it is not necessary to prove to a moral certainty that one inmate intends to attack another, nor is it necessary to show that a particular inmate was targeted by another.  However, to make a constitutional claim, it must be shown that officers were more than merely negligent in failing to prevent the assault.

Cases involving inmate-against-inmate assaults can occur in a variety of circumstances.  Some cases involve inmates who target other inmates — either because of personal disputes, gang affiliations, or because of personal circumstances such as sexual orientation.  Other cases involve inmates who are housed with others who have clearly shown a propensity toward violent behavior.  To prevail in such cases, it is generally necessary to show that jail officials knew (by warnings, personal observation, or otherwise) that an assault was likely to occur, but took no action to prevent it.

More than 20 years ago, the Supreme Court held that “[b]eing violently assaulted in prison is simply not part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society.”  While jail conditions can be restrictive and harsh, jail officials are not free to “let the state of nature take its course” by permitting assaults to occur.

If you or a loved one would like to consult with an attorney concerning a serious injury or wrongful death that occurred in jail or prison, contact the lawyers at Budge & Heipt for a free consultation.  There is no cost or obligation to do so.

If you or a loved one has been a victim of serious injury and/or death at the hands of police or in jail or prison, tell us about your case.