JAILS / CORRECTIONS
Duty to Protect Prisoners from Assault
by Jack Ryan, J.D.
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Through these materials it becomes clear that the one group of individuals that government actors have a duty to protect is prisoners. This duty arises under circumstances where the prisoner is threatened by another prisoner, a staff member or vendor, or even themselves.
A case from the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Edmonds v. Walkeri provides an example of how such cases arise.
“Illinois inmate Ronald Eddmonds filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the defendants, all employees of the Illinois Department of Corrections, acted with deliberate indifference in violation of the Eighth Amendment when they failed to promptly intervene in an attack upon him by his cellmate. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants. Eddmonds now appeals, and we affirm.
Eddmonds was asleep at 3:30 a.m. when his cellmate Bernick Carothers violently attacked him. Carothers began stabbing him with a pen in the left eye and punching him in the face. As Eddmonds screamed for help, Carothers started to choke him and continued punching. Robert Walker, the gallery officer that night, heard Eddmonds's screams and rushed to the cell while radioing Sergeant Larry Quertermous and Lieutenant Taylor, the supervising officer that night, for backup. Quertermous and Walker arrived at the cell first and saw Carothers putting Eddmonds in a chokehold; Carothers warned the two officers that he would kill Eddmonds if either intervened in the fight. Both officers yelled at Carothers to "stop" and "let him go," or they would use chemical spray.
Within three to five minutes Taylor arrived at the cell. By that point Carothers had released Eddmonds and retreated to the back of the cell, and Eddmonds had approached the officers at the front of the cell. Taylor told Eddmonds he would open the cell door if Eddmonds would let them handcuff him, but Eddmonds refused because he feared being constricted as long as Carothers remained in the cell. But he eventually relented, and the officers opened the cell door and restrained both inmates. Eddmonds was taken in a wheelchair to the health care unit, where he remained for nine days, receiving stitches for the puncture wound and intravenous antibiotics.”
Eddmonds file a lawsuit contending that the officers were not in danger and thus should have acted more quickly in entering the cell and stopping the assault rather than waiting for more help to arrive and demanding that he relent to handcuffs before opening the cell.
In its analysis the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit noted:
Prison officials owe inmates a duty to protect them from violent assaults inflicted by other inmates. An official violates that duty, grounded in the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, if he is deliberately indifferent to conditions that pose a substantial risk of serious harm to an inmate. In order to prove deliberate indifference, though, an inmate must show more than mere negligence; prison officials must have been ‘aware of a substantial risk of serious injury to [the inmate] but nevertheless failed to take appropriate steps to protect him from a known danger.’ Moreover, ‘even if an official is found to have been aware that [the inmate] was at substantial risk of serious injury, he is free from liability if he responded to the situation in a reasonable manner… we have [previously] held that an immediate intervention in an inmate-on-inmate assault is not necessary.” [cites omitted]
The court held that the officers had reasonably responded to the attack on Eddmonds and dismissed the lawsuit.
i Eddmonds v. Walker, 2009 U.S. App. Lexis 5962 (7th Cir. 2009)