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Where Violence and Terror Reign: How Prison Guards Can Be Held Liable for Inmate-on-Inmate Violence

On Behalf of | Sep 16, 2016 | civil rights

Many people accept violence between prisoners as an every-day facet of life for incarcerated individuals. Some even argue that such violence should be tolerated as part of the punishment for committing a crime. While these issues often remain unaddressed by policy-makers and prison officials, the Eighth Amendment provides recourse for certain individuals who have been the victim of violence at the hands of another inmate. An Eighth Amendment claim for failing to protect an inmate from violence is difficult to bring. However, a recent decision, Lane v. Philbin shows that these causes of action remain viable in the Eleventh Circuit. The Lane case reversed a lower court which had granted a prisoner’s motion to dismiss.

In order to bring a failure to protect claim, the plaintiff must first show that, viewed objectively, there is a substantial risk of serious harm to the inmate. Isolated incidents of violence are generally not enough to sustain an Eighth Amendment violation. However, the Eleventh Circuit has held that “confinement in a prison where violence and terror reign” is actionable. In the Lane case, the defendant was able to show objectively dangerous conditions based on the fact that his cell-block was composed of 90% gang-members who had access to welding equipment that allowed them to fashion weapons out of light fixtures and shelves in the prison. The Lane court, interpreting prior precedent, seemed to indicate that where unsupervised inmates can easily access certain resources to make weapons, an inference may be drawn that the facility is one where violence and terror reign.

Having met the objective criteria, a victim of inmate violence then must show that the defendants named in the lawsuit were deliberately indifferent to the risk posed to the plaintiff. This requires a showing of three elements: (1) subjective knowledge of the risk: (2) disregard of that risk; and (3) conduct that is more than mere negligence. This generally requires that the officials be put on notice of the risk by the inmate prior to the incident. However, the Lane court appears to have softened this requirement somewhat by allowing the case to move forward where the complaint alleged that the defendants had threatened to send other inmates to the cell-block and had refused the plaintiffs multiple requests to be transferred out.

Lane and other decisions show that the constitution affords some protection from inmate violence. However, any inmate who feels unsafe while incarcerated must take some affirmative steps to alert prison officials about the risk. They must also allege enough facts in their complaint to show that the inmate violence they were subjected to was not an isolated incident. With these prerequisites met, inmates will be able to avoid having their cases dismissed and can hold prison guards liable who overlooked serious threats to their safety.