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Don’t Let Inmate Lawsuits Affect Your Job
By Greg Osterstuck
Published: 05/07/2012

Courtroom a At some point in a correction officer’s career they will be verbally threatened by inmates saying, “I’m going to sue you and this prison.” Most officers will pass that comment off and pretend it wasn’t said to them after an incident. The problem with inmates lawsuits (notice of claim) against officers is some of those inmates are versed in the law (especially federal inmates) and they know when and how to file a lawsuit. In the federal court system there is an avenue for filing a notice of claim for a constitutional question. 42 USCA 1983 is called the “Civil Action for Deprivation of Rights.” ¹ Inmates without cost to them (pro-se) to file with the court a notice of claim against correction officers, police officers or any sworn officer of the law who violates their constitutional rights. The denial of constitutional rights to prisoners can be summarized in this statement: “Section 1983 is not itself a source of substantive rights, it merely provides a method for the vindication of rights elsewhere conferred in the United States Constitution and Laws. Therefore, a plaintiff may prevail only if he can demonstrate that he was deprived of rights secured by the United States Constitution or federal statutes….” ¹ In essence, denial of an inmate their constitutional rights to freedom of religion, freedom to access the courts, freedom to speak and recreation all can subject you as an officer to a lawsuit in federal court. If you act as a professional correction officer you can alleviate the worry about lawsuits against you and the facility. Documentation is essential in all cases where inmates are restrained or subdued by officers due to an incident. This documentation will eventually save that officer from being caught in open court making erroneous statements or testimony about an incident.

Officers must use the use of force continuum when subduing inmates. In general most departments and facilities teach officers to escalate force starting with:
  • officer presence
  • verbal command
  • soft hand techniques
  • and hard hand techniques including pepper spray or Tasers if authorized
  • and lastly DPF (deadly physical force)

When an inmate retreats, you as the officer must retreat. If that same inmate comes back to attack the officer you then go to the use of force continuum and it starts all over again as you have a right to protect yourself and fellow officers from assaults. Once an inmate is restrained by handcuffs and shackles you must stop any use of force such as hitting them, kicking them or throwing them into a wall while restrained. In addition many officers forget that when transporting an inmate who is cuffed and shacked to a holding cell you are responsible for that inmate not getting assaulted by another inmate. An inmate who is restrained cannot defend themselves; therefore the officer must prevent them from being injured during transport.

As we have discussed denial of a constitutional right gives the inmate an opportunity to file a lawsuit against the officer and the facility. If as an officer you wish to deny a constitutional right there must be documentation that shows the inmate has violated his rights by intentionally doing something that the facility SOPs do not allow. For example, inmates who fight during recreation may be placed in administrative segregation from other inmates for the safety and security of the facility. Such actions in any facility (county jail, prison) the Chief Administrator of the facility must approve such action with a definite start date and ending date based upon the written incident report provided by the officer.

In summary you can limit your exposure to lawsuits from inmates by simply doing your job professionally at all times, documenting what you do on your shift, notifying your supervisor when an incident involves you or other officers with an inmate and treating the inmate with respect as long as they respect you as an officer. There is no place in corrections for officers who attack inmates because they lost their temper, those days of doing so are gone. Almost every facility has cameras in every hall, room and dorm which watches what the inmates do and more importantly what you do as an officer. Be aware of your surroundings, be alert and safe.

¹ http://www.constitution.org/brief/forsythe_42-1983.htm

Corrections.com author, Greg Osterstuck, retired after 22 years of corrections at the Chautauqua County Jail. As a correction officer he volunteered for tasks such as DNA collection officer, notary public and instituted the current Sheriff's law library system where he researched both NY state and Federal law for inmates. He also serves as a substitute teacher at Erie-2 BOCES for Criminal Justice and several other CTE courses with junior and senior high school students. Greg is also a certified American Heart Association CPR and first aid instructor.

Other articles by Osterstuck


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  2. jamestown0509 on 05/13/2012:

    Actually of the 22 years that I worked in a jail using handcuffs, belts and shackles no inmate (even the most violent)ever tried to assault either another inmate or staff. When you escort an inmate who is restrained by cuffs and shackles you should have a minimum of two officers and preferably 4 officers to escort them to the SHU or where ever they are supposed to go. Normal procedure is to hold their arms on both sides going down hallways or in the elevator we always placed the inmate with their face toward the wall of the elevator for more control. In my opinion as an officer you should be more concerned about the subject in shackles and cuffs getting assaulted by other inmates.

  3. greenead on 05/13/2012:

    The author in writing about a restrained (handcuffs and leg irons) inmate, may have neglected to consider restrained inmates can still be assaultive. Many officers I know have been head butted, bit, kicked, and spit on while the inmate was restrained. Would not force be necessary to still control the inmate in these situations?

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