Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘federal jurisdiction

Supreme Court Blocks Federal Lawsuit against Private Prison Employees

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Earlier this week the Supreme Court threw out a federal prisoner’s federal lawsuit against employees of the GEO Group, saying the inmate should have pursued his claims in state court. (Which he’s now missed the deadline to do.) As Jess Bravin explains:

Under high-court precedents, inmates in federal institutions can file federal lawsuits against prison employees for mistreatment that violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.”

By an 8-1 vote, however, the court refused to extend that right to inmates held in private prisons operated under contract to the U.S. government. In an opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer, the court observed that in contrast to federal employees, whom prisoners generally can’t sue in state court, employees of the private company enjoy no such immunity.

The AP has these details about the suit:

[Inmate Richard Lee] Pollard wanted to sue for his treatment after he fell and fractured both of his elbows at the privately run Taft Correctional Institution in Taft, Calif.

Pollard said GEO officials put him in a metal restraint that caused him pain, and refused to provide him with a splint, making his injuries worse and causing permanent impairment. He sued in federal court for money, claiming GEO officials had violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the sole dissenter, writing, “Were Pollard incarcerated in a federal- or state-operated facility, she would have a federal remedy for the Eighth Amendment violation he alleges. I would not deny the same character of relief to Pollard, a prisoner placed by federal contact in a privately operated prison.”

The case is Minneci v. Pollard; you can read the full opinion as well as lots of commentary over at SCOTUSblog.


Upcoming Event: Prison-related Panels at ACS 2010

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This weekend, the American Constitution Society will hold its national convention in Washington, D.C. Almost all the panels could bear on prison/jail issues in some way, and certainly on broader concerns of criminal law, procedure, and punishment. That said, if you’re planning to attend and are especially interested in prison/jail issues, watch out for these panels:

Friday, June 18

  • 2010 Census and Redistricting — perhaps the discussion will touch on prison-based gerrymandering?
  • Access to Federal Courts after Iqbal and Twombly
  • Immigration Reform: Congress and the States

Saturday, June 19

  • Detainees and Justice: Military Commissions vs. Trials within the Federal Court System
  • The Federal Role in Improving Indigent Criminal Defense

When Is a “Prisoner Release Order” Not a Prisoner Release Order?

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The Supreme Court announced today that it will hear California’s appeal of a federal court order to reduce the prison population (PDF link). (As Doug Berman notes, the order came under the curious heading of “jurisdiction postponed.” Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog explains here.) Many news sources describe the federal court’s order using the technical legal term “prisoner release order,” but that term could be misleading to readers who take it too literally. Since there seems to be some confusion in the press, I thought I’d clarify what the words “prisoner release order” actually mean in this context. The post is long, so I’ll put it all after the jump. NOTE: For readers unfamiliar with the California prison litigation, you’ll also find a nutshell summary after the jump.

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DOJ Plans to Buy Illinois Prison Whether or Not It’s Approved for Terror Detainees

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According to Assistant Attorney General Ronald Welch, the Obama Administration will move forward with plans to purchase a prison facility in rural Thomson, Ill., whether or not Congress approves the transfer of Guantanamo detainees there. The DOJ has asked for $237 million in appropriations in next year’s budget to buy and begin using the facility to hold high-security federal inmates. Rep. Don Manzullo (R – IL), who represents northern Illinois in Congress, publicly supports the new federal prison as a way of creating jobs, but has been critical of plans to transfer Guantanamo detainees there, ostensibly for safety reasons.

Here I’ll just note a few related points; make of them what you will: 1) As I noted the other day, prisons actually haven’t been found to boost local economies, or to create as many jobs as hoped; 2) I’ve never quite understood why people are so worried about bringing the remaining Guantanamo detainees into the U.S., considering that the federal supermax in Colorado already holds some pretty dangerous folks; 3) Is this the start of a federal prison mini-boom? As the Pew Center on the States reported this week, although state prison populations have fallen in over half the states, the federal prison population is growing:

The survey found that the federal prison population continued to grow, rising by 6,838 prisoners, or 3.4 percent, to an all-time high of 208,118. Expanded federal jurisdiction over certain crimes and increased prosecution of immigration cases account for much of the increase.

Seventh Circuit Reinstates First Amendment Class Action Lawsuit Against Indiana Jail

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Although the named plaintiff may no longer be an inmate there, his would-be class action lawsuit against an Indiana county jail is not moot, the Seventh Circuit held this week. Mark Olson alleges that Tippecanoe County Jail (TCJ) officials opened his legal mail outside of his presence, denied him access to the law library, and failed to respond to any of the 21 grievances he filed while he was incarcerated there in 2008-09. Olson filed a federal lawsuit against the sheriff in charge of the jail, alleging several violations of both the First Amendment and Indiana law. Olson also moved to certify the lawsuit as a class action, attaching affidavits from 53 other TCJ inmates with similar complaints.

Shortly after filing the suit, Olson was transferred out of TCJ by the Indiana Department of Corrections. As a result, the district court dismissed the lawsuit as moot. The Seventh Circuit reversed, and remanded the suit back to the district court for a decision on whether to certify the class, relying on the “inherently transitory” exception to the mootness doctrine. That is, even though Olson himself can’t benefit directly from the lawsuit anymore, there will always be some group of inmates at TCJ who may be suffering from the alleged pattern of violations:

The pervasive nature of these claims, as evidenced by the fifty-three affidavits outlining problems similar to those complained of by Olsen, makes it likely that TCJ’s alleged practices of opening inmates’ legal mail, denying inmates access to the law library, and failing to respond to inmates’ grievances will continue.

(Olson v. Brown, No. 09-2728, 7th Cir., Feb. 4, 2010, p. 13)

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