In Virginia, Prison officials violate the Eighth Amendment’s cruel-and-unusual-punishment clause when they are deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk to an inmate’s safety or medical needs.0
August 6, 2023 by Tom Roberts, Esq.
Eighth Amendment Violations
Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution states “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
Prison officials violate the Eighth Amendment’s cruel-and-unusual-punishment clause when they are deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk to an inmate’s safety or medical needs. See Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994).
Disappointing Case - from the Fourth Circuit
On August 4, 2023, the Fourth Circuit in a three-member panel split decision by judges Thacker and Richardson, affirmed summary judgment based upon qualified immunity to prison officials in a shocking case where the specific risk of harm that a prisoner faced from the failure of prison staff to monitor and control other dangerous and violent prisoners, in a ward housing inmates with serious persistent mental illness who require intensive treatment.
The prison had given special privileges to two murderous inmates, which gave them the ability to move about the prison ward to lure four inmates into a cell one by one to be strangled and killed, while the officer charged with monitoring this peculiarly dangerous population with inspections every 30 minutes, failed to look into their cells. Both of these “ward keepers” with a violent prison history were serving life sentences for double murders. According to the opinion, the guard didn’t just fail to look into a few cell windows; he utterly failed to account for the presence and safety of each Intermediate Care Services unit inmate. He knew the security checks were inadequate and in violation of his training. Faced with danger, the inmates had virtually no recourse–they were for all practical purposes dependent upon the prison to protect them, without the ability to carry a weapon for self-defense with nowhere to retreat. Judge Wynn dissented stating that the majority added additional bricks to an already-steep deliberate-indifference wall that is already almost insurmountable and the majority lays out a blueprint for how prison officials can avoid liability under Section 1983.
King v Warden Timothy Riley, et al. (4th Circuit)
DISSENT BY FOURTH CIRCUIT JUDGE JAMES ANDREW WYNN
Judge Wynn, dissented from the dismissal of the constitutional claim by a more focused look at the facts in the case. Excerpts of his dissent are set out below:
Defendants Vaugh Jackson, Tecorrie Garvin, and McKan knew— because they each signed off on the incident report—that one of these wardkeepers, Simmons, had attacked another inmate with cleaning supplies (a squeegee) in late December 2016, less than four months before he killed four men, two of them also with cleaning supplies.
And, at minimum, McKan was subjectively aware that “his actions were inappropriate in light of that risk,” Cox, 828 F.3d at 236 (internal quotation marks omitted), having admitted to knowing what a proper security check entailed and knowing that security checks were done for inmate safety but nevertheless “common[ly]” failing to do them properly, J.A. 155.
Thus, to speak of a “generalized risk” of harm in prison is to speak of a fiction— and this Court ought not be a prisoner to its own fictions. Common sense tells us that the risk of harm that a prisoner faces from the failure of prison staff to monitor and control other dangerous and violent prisoners is definitionally and continuously “specific.” Faced with danger, an inmate has virtually no recourse. Inmates, of course, cannot carry a weapon for self-defense. There is nowhere to retreat
Here, the majority opinion’s description of the conduct at issue makes McKan’s failures seem like minor technical violations. But McKan didn’t just fail to look into a few cell windows; he utterly failed to account for the presence and safety of each Intermediate Care Services unit inmate. He knew the security checks were inadequate and in violation of his training.
Today also, the majority opinion lays out a blueprint for how prison officials can avoid liability under Section 1983. First, the majority opinion incentivizes prison officials to say nothing and make sure no official is “exposed to information concerning [any] risk” of harm. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 842. A prison official should avoid telling guards about an inmate’s prior history of violent crimes and any risk of danger, and prison staff are advised that they should not ask who has special privileges in a unit or what those privileges entail. In addition, there should not be a written policy in place governing security checks and related safety protocol. Finally, the majority opinion informs prison officials that should something go wrong, they should wash their hands and disclaim any actual knowledge. This, despite our express admonition that “prison officials may not simply bury their heads in the sand and thereby skirt liability.” Makdessi, 789 F.3d at 133.
STANDARD FOR FEDERAL EIGHTH AMENDMENT VIOLATION
Prison officials violate the Eighth Amendment’s cruel-and-unusual-punishment clause when they are deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk to an inmate’s safety or medical needs. See Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994); Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976). A deliberate indifference claim has an objective and subjective element. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834–37; Pfaller v. Amonette, 55 F.4th 436, 445 (4th Cir. 2022). The objective prong requires the inmate to demonstrate a “substantial risk of serious harm.” Farmer, 511 U.S. 834. The subjective prong requires the inmate to show that the prison official knew about this substantial risk and recognized that their response to that risk was inadequate. Parrish ex rel. Lee v. Cleveland, 372 F.3d 294, 303 (4th Cir. 2004). That means, even with knowledge of the risk, an official who “responded reasonably to the risk” cannot be found liable under the Eighth Amendment. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 844.
The inmate must show that the prison official acted with a “sufficiently culpable state of mind,” specifically, “deliberate indifference” to the inmate’s health or safety. Id. at 236. Deliberate indifference requires a showing that the prison official “subjectively recognized a substantial risk of harm” and “subjectively recognized that his actions were inappropriate in light of that risk.” Parrish ex rel. Lee v. Cleveland, 372 F.3d 294, 303 (4th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks omitted). To be sure, deliberate indifference is a “high standard,” requiring proof that the prison official had actual knowledge, both of a substantial risk of harm and that his actions were inappropriate in light of that risk. Danser v. Stansberry, 772 F.3d 340, 347 (4th Cir. 2014).
The Supreme Court that instructed that deliberate indifference is established not only when the prison official “knew of a substantial risk” of serious harm, but also when the official “must have known” about the risk. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 842 (emphasis added)
The Supreme Court rejected the idea that something bad must happen first before deliberate indifference could be shown: “a subjective approach to deliberate indifference does not require a prisoner seeking a remedy for unsafe conditions to await a tragic event such as an actual assault before obtaining relief.” Id. at 845 (cleaned up); cf. Washington 5 While the victim in Makdessi had previously complained to prison officials about prior attacks, we expressly noted that “whether a prisoner protests or complains before he is injured may be irrelevant” to the deliberate indifference inquiry. Makdessi, 789 F.3d at 136. 27 v. Hous. Auth. of the City of Columbia, 58 F.4th 170, 180 (4th Cir. 2023) (government agencies do not get a “one free death” card).
“[E]very injury suffered by one prisoner at the hands of another” does not translate “into constitutional liability for prison officials responsible for the victim’s safety.” Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834.
SUPERVISOR LIABILITY MUST BE BASED UPON INDIVIDUAL OFFICERS’ ACTION
“Government officials may not be held liable for the unconstitutional conduct of their subordinates under a theory of respondeat superior.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal 556 U.S. 662, 676 (2009). Put differently, “each Government official, his or her title notwithstanding, is only liable for his or her own misconduct.” Id. at 677. And a supervisor’s “mere knowledge” that his subordinates are engaged in unconstitutional conduct is not enough. Id. Liability is thus determined person by person: A plaintiff must show “each Government-official defendant, through the official’s own individual actions, has violated the Constitution.” Id.; see also Trulock v. Freeh, 275 F.3d 391, 402 (4th Cir. 2001).
A complaint must contain specific allegations of each individual’s conduct and state of mind. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 677.
QUALIFIED IMMUNITY IN THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
When a government official is sued in their individual capacity, they are protected by qualified immunity “insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). To overcome qualified immunity, a plaintiff must typically show (1) that the government official violated a statutory or constitutional right and (2) that right was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct. See Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 735 (2011).
A right is clearly established if existing precedent—either controlling case law or a “consensus of persuasive authority” from other Circuits, Booker v. S.C. Dep’t of Corr., 855 F.3d 533, 544 (4th Cir. 2017)—has placed the question beyond debate. Taylor v. Barkes, 9 575 U.S. 822, 825 (2015). While this standard does not require “a case directly on point,” the case law must be “sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.” Id. (quoting al-Kidd, 563 U.S. at 741).
“good-faith efforts to remedy a plaintiff’s problems will prevent finding deliberate indifference, absent extraordinary circumstances.” Koon v. North Carolina, 50 F.4th 398, 407 (4th Cir. 2022).
PRACTICE TIP – REASON TO BRING STATE TORT CLAIMS
State tort laws deal with sovereign immunity which does not deny victims of government actors for intentional wrongdoing or gross negligence. In the context of the King case, the majority cites Tucker v. Evans, 276 F.3d 999, 1001–02 (8th Cir. 2002) (holding that a correction officer’s failure to properly perform security checks was, at most, gross negligence). Not every violation of prison policy is a violation of the constitution but those violations may give rise to tort liability.
STATUS OF QUALIFIED IMMUNITY IN THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
The majority states regarding the state of the judge made doctrine of qualified immunity, “That doctrine is controversial and roundly criticized. See Sharpe 17 v Winterville Police Dep’t., 59 F.4th 674, 684 n.12 (4th Cir. 2023). But it is also binding, and so we must faithfully apply it.”
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Category Assault & Battery, Assault & Battery, Civil Rights, Excessive Force, General, Litigation, Wrongful Death | Tags: 8th amendment, deliberate indifference, failure to protect inmate, failure to provide medical treatment to inmates, prison duty to protect inmates, prison duty to protect inmates from other inmates, prison liability, prison liability in the 4th circuit, prison liability in the fourth circuit, prison liability in virginia
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