The US has nearly 2.3 million men and women incarcerated in federal, state, and local prisons and jails. Some of these inmates are litigious and have filed numerous lawsuits against Sheriffs, Administrators, Correction Officers and other staff. The threat of possible litigation is a concern for all corrections professionals. The inmates committed to our custody often know the statutes and regulations as well if not better than the Officers supervising them, the Nurses providing medical care for them and the Program Staff providing them with services. Inmates who have filed lawsuits pro-se will mention past litigation to staff which leaves corrections professionals uneasy about carrying out their duties.
There are ways to minimize lawsuits and to reduce the chances of a judgment against corrections agencies and staff. Developing, disseminating and adhering to well written policies that are both operationally and legally sound is a good first step. Training curriculum should be reviewed, updated frequently and given to staff to ensure that they know how to handle inmate issues that arise in the course of their duties. All staff should document incidents thoroughly and keep copies of their reports. Housing units and inmate housing areas should be toured by supervisors and command staff frequently to ensure that the staff and the inmates know that we care about the working and living conditions that people face on a daily basis. Other ways to reduce the possibility of inmate litigation include a sound inmate grievance policy and an inmate legal service team that can make staff aware of and potentially defuse issues that may end up being litigated.
Even taking these steps will not completely end inmate litigation. There are a number of areas that have been a frequent source of lawsuits. Corrections staff should be aware of these areas and be pro-active in ensuring that we do not violate inmate rights.
Lawsuits are part of doing business in corrections. Inmates have had their freedom taken away from them due to the crimes that are charged with or have been convicted of. Some of them may feel alienated from the criminal justice system. Most of these men and women will be re-entering society one day. Treating them with respect is the right thing to do not only because it reduces the possibility that they will file lawsuits; it also starts their reintegration in a positive manner.
- Food /Special Diets: Inmates will sometimes request medical or religious diets. Having religious diet requests reviewed by a Chaplain is an effective way to ensure that legitimate requests are granted and that staff will be insulated against claims. If the religious leader denies a request for religious reasons, it will reduce the possibility of litigation. The medical staff should review all requests for medical diets. Having a nutritionist review the menu to ensure that it meets caloric and nutritional guidelines is also advisable.
- Inmate Discipline: Inmates will often be dissatisfied with time in segregation and the loss of earned good time. All disciplinary reports should be well written and there should be a good appeal mechanism in place. Statistical analysis should be conducted to ensure that all discipline is warranted and defendable.
- The Use of Force: Any time that force is used on an inmate, there is a possibility of litigation. The agency’s use of force policy should discuss the continuum of force and staff should be well versed in the policy. Video should be preserved and all uses of force should be reviewed on a daily basis by supervisors and command staff.
- Medical Care: The men and women committed to our care often have significant medical / mental health needs and a large number of them have issues with addictions. Correction Officers and other staff should document requests for medical care and notify the medical department of the inmate’s claims. There are times that inmates want medications that are not approved inside a correctional facility. Alternative medication can be given in those cases. A strong sick call practice and medical rounds in housing units will limit the possibility of a lawsuit on medical grounds. Inmates who are suicidal or ideate suicidal thoughts should be kept on special watch until they are cleared by mental health staff. The number of mental health beds has decreased significantly across the nation and some patients who would have been in one of their beds 10-15 years ago are now in our facilities. This can tax our medical capabilities and cause potential lawsuits. Good communication between security staff and mental health can only help to keep inmates safe and staff out of court.
- Classification: A solid classification plan is crucial to a facility. Inmates need to have the ability to earn privileges such as a lower security level, more time out of their cell or more visits through good behavior. They should also have the right kept separate from their enemies and to be able to obtain protective custody status if necessary. Those who are involved in an altercation may look at what they view to be a faulty classification decision and may decide to pursue legal action. Staff who receive requests for a change in units or classification status should forward them promptly to classification.
- Conditions of Confinement: Especially in older or overcrowded facilities, this issue is a frequent area of litigation. Small scale complaints such a broken sink or the temperature of the water in the showers should be followed up on with the maintenance staff promptly to ensure that the inmates know that their living conditions are being taken seriously. Overcrowded facilities often cause living conditions that may warrant court involvement. We should ensure that we make the conditions as humane as possible. Quick and effective follow up on these issues make the facility safer for staff and inmates and reduce the likelihood of possible litigation.
Editor's note: Corrections.com author, Gerard J. Horgan, has been the Superintendent at the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston since 2003. He has been with the Sheriff’s Department for 24 years. A graduate of Northeastern University and Suffolk University Law School, Horgan has trained staff in inmate rights and civil liability and is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Massachusetts where he teaches Corrections and Criminal Justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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