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Inmate Can't Sue for Prison for Injury

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By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on January 13, 2012 3:02 AM

Did you know that there are more than 25,000 inmates housed in 13 private federal prisons?

Well, there are. And those inmates can't sue private prison employees for violating the 8th Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

No, according to a new ruling by the Supreme Court, federal inmates must sue  private prison employees in state courts. They must also base their claims on state tort law. No constitutional law allowed.

This ruling is the result of an intended -- but quirky -- gap in federal law. Congress has not enacted a statute permitting lawsuits against federal employees who violate a person's constitutional rights.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court has allowed some of these claims to move forward. They're called "Bivens actions" and they are granted only when there are no other remedies available.

Richard Lee Pollard has other options. He broke both of his elbows during his stay in a private federal prison in California. He alleges employee negligence caused him significant pain and left him with permanently damaged arms.

Technically, he can sue the prison employees for negligence and malpractice under California law. The Court thus ruled that Pollard -- and inmates in similar positions -- has no right to file a federal lawsuit against those employees.

On some level, this ruling may actually be a blessing for inmates housed in private federal prisons. Tort lawsuits may not be worth as much money, but they're generally much easier to prove than those based on constitutional violations.

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