How corrections officers can avoid being sued by an inmate

Each year, we read about corrections officers getting fired and prosecuted for violating the basic rights of inmates, and 2016 was no different


By Gary Cornelius

When ‘newbies’ enter the academy for basic training, part of the curriculum includes the constitutional rights of inmates and avoiding liability. Each year, we read about corrections officers getting fired and prosecuted for violating the basic rights of inmates, and 2016 was no different. Generally, these incidents involve lack of medical care, excessive force or inmate suicide. The training curriculum will discuss these concepts, the COs will take notes and then they will be tested on the material. If the aspiring COs apply themselves and pass the exam, they will then pass basic training, graduate and report to the facility, eager to do their duty.   

Since new COs receive liability and inmates’ constitutional rights training in the academy, should there not be in depth quality in service sessions that discuss the constantly changing area of inmate rights? Should a CO be required to attend training in this area periodically throughout his or her career? The answer is yes. I teach an in service class for jail officers titled Avoiding Liability. I tell trainees that like jail suicides, all lawsuits cannot be prevented. But, COs need to play it smart and always be prepared to deal with one, and most of the time the lawsuit will come out in their favor.

Case law, the law resulting from court decisions in inmate litigation, changes the way we do things. New correctional standards, policies and procedures have come about because of significant cases brought before the courts, namely the United States Supreme Court. Training in inmate rights and officers’ duties to make sure that they are met must not be by rote or reading a court case and requiring everyone to sign a training roster. The reasoning behind the courts’ thinking and decisions must be examined. In this age of digital media and the Internet, there are many avenues to get information on inmate civil rights issues and court cases.

Trainers and supervisors must drive home the point that being sued is an occupational hazard.  Any inmate can sue, but winning is something else. Avoiding lawsuits can be accomplished by several common sense steps. But if a CO is sued, these two common sense steps can aid in a court defense:

1. First, the CO and the agency want to show adherence to policies and procedures, the staff was well supervised and well trained.

2. Second, the inmate and/or his or her attorney want to demonstrate the opposite. They want to show that supervision is negligent and inadequate, the staff is inept and poorly trained, and the staff has a malicious attitude.

(Photo/Pixabay)
(Photo/Pixabay)

So, with that in mind, let’s look at some effective ways to avoid liability, and aborting that trip to federal or state court. This is from a great resource, Legal Aspects of Correctional Management.

Follow the directives, policies and instructions of your supervisors

They are the ones with the stripes and collar insignia, and they are paid to make sure that the staff follows procedures. A lot of time and effort went into drafting and approving sound policies and procedures, and by following them, you will be on firm footing. Remember, there is no such thing as a stupid question-or an observation. If supervisors give an order and you are not comfortable, or do not quite fully understand it, ask for clarification or make your concerns known. Do this respectfully and maturely. For example, an inmate at 3:00 AM is complaining of a migraine headache and asks to see the medical staff. Policy says that inmates are locked in until breakfast. You call your supervisor, who says sick call is at 8:00AM; he can wait because it’s just a headache. You may doubt the supervisor’s response because a migraine could be indicative of stroke or aneurism. 

You respectfully ask your supervisor if an exception can be made, as the inmate is in excruciating pain. You may want to point out if this inmate suffers a serious medical problem, you and the facility could be liable, or a move list has an inmate going into a unit. The inmate stops at the door and says that a street enemy is in there and he doesn’t want any trouble. A supervisor says put him in there for now and we’ll sort it out later. You must speak up, as putting an inmate in a known dangerous situation may open you up for violating his safety.  

Training in inmate rights should be ongoing and accessible

Most correctional standards require some type of annual training in key areas, including the rights of inmates. However, all staff that interact with inmates or provide services to them must receive training. Reading court cases is not sufficient training. Trainers should research key court decisions and translate the findings into practical curriculums that apply to staff duties. Trainers can also find good, well written news articles about a case, and that can serve as a learning tool. You don’t have to trot out a 100-page court decision. But, if you come across a good news article or summary about a case, especially where the agency was found liable and had to pay out a lot of money, then it can be used as a learning tool and should be discussed with staff.

Know the law

Staff should know the law and court decisions that directly impact their area of responsibility.  A CO working on a squad should know the statutes about crimes committed by incarcerated inmates. But, if a court decision is handed down that impacts your agency about placing mentally disordered inmates in restraint chairs, for how long or medical checks, then trainers should discuss this with COs who are responsible for placing inmates in restraints.

Find a good mentor

Every agency has personnel who have learned effective ways to handle problems with inmates. These individuals are good at putting agency policies and procedures into practices that both benefit the inmate welfare and the agency. They also may know court findings and civil rights of inmates well enough to perform their duties more efficiently. Mentors are good in keeping up in the field and teaching younger COs by sharing their knowledge. Or mentors can be bad by using outdated views and practices. By doing so, they may end up in court.

Keep good records

If it was not written down, it did not happen. Written documentation is critical. Keep well written records, including training records, housing logs or incident reports. Lawyers defending you and the agency need this written documentation because it shows what was done, who did what and why. It shows that services were rendered to the inmate and procedures that were followed. Documentation must also paint a clear picture of an event. If an inmate acts up and has to be restrained or subdued, a well written report can clearly show what the inmate was acting like and why staff had to do what they did. Plus, good documentation can help your memory when you are called on to testify. It also helps that section that we all have come to know, Internal Affairs.

Here are some closing thoughts:

•    We operate in a nation of laws-including case law. If some COs cannot abide by the fact that inmates have limited constitutional rights, then they should leave the field.
•    Never, never stop learning about the rights of inmates. This part of corrections is constantly changing. Keep up through training and self-education. The knowledge will help you in the long run.

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