Richard Lee Pollard was a federal inmate when he slipped, fell and broke both his elbows. Prison officials then allegedly forced him into a jumpsuit and wrist restraints, despite the fact that these restraints caused him excruciating pain, and they also allegedly refused to allow him to wear a split his doctors ordered him to wear. For weeks, due to the prison’s alleged neglect, Pollard was unable to feed or bathe himself.
This treatment violates the Constitution. As the Supreme Court held 35 years ago, the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment requires prisons to provide adequate medical care to inmates. Yet, if the Supreme Court agrees with a lower court decision immunizing many prisons from the Constitution, Pollard may find himself in a Constitution-free zone simply because his prison happens to be run by a private corporation:
A Supreme Court case could determine whether thousands of inmates in privately run prisons have the same rights to sue in federal court as prisoners in facilities run by the U.S. government.
The case, Minneci v. Pollard, involves a federal inmate who wants to sue his jailers for damages over alleged violations of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The prisoner claims he was painfully mistreated after an accident at a for-profit prison, operating under contract for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Lower federal courts have split on whether federal private-prison inmates can bring such damage claims for alleged constitutional violations.
Shockingly, the Supreme Court already held, in its 5–4 decision in Correctional Services Corp. v. Malesko, that private prison corporations who run federal prisons are immune from constitutional lawsuits. The only issue in Pollard’s case is whether the corporation’s employees also enjoy the same immunity.
In other words, the corporate prisons industry has largely won its battle to ignore the Constitution in deciding how to treat federal inmates. Although people like Pollard might still be able to convince a state judge to hold these corporations accountable, he can forget about the Constitution.