There are more than 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States. To put this number in perspective, the number of people in jails and prisons in the U.S. equals approximately the entire city of Houston.
Free citizens can receive compensation for an injury by filing a personal injury lawsuit, but do inmates have any recourse for injuries sustained while incarcerated?
Can an inmate sue a jail or prison for negligence?
Most personal injury lawsuits are based on negligence. A negligence claim asserts that a person or entity failed to exercise reasonable care and that failure caused your injury.
To establish negligence, you must prove that:
- The defendant owed you a duty of care,
- The defendant breached the duty of care, and
- The breach was the direct cause of the harm you suffered.
Just like people who are not incarcerated, people in jails and prisons have the right to file a lawsuit against the jail or prison. However, inmates face several unique obstacles that free citizens don’t when it comes to filing a personal injury lawsuit.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act
The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) is a federal law that requires inmates to exhaust all administrative remedies before they’re permitted to file a personal injury lawsuit.
To put it simply, before you file a lawsuit, you must first try to resolve your complaint through the prison’s existing grievance procedures. Unfortunately, there are currently no regulations governing prison grievance processes, and many prisons have made their procedures so complex that inmates have been discouraged from pursuing claims.
If you file your lawsuit before giving the prison the opportunity to resolve the issue, your lawsuit will likely be dismissed.
Qualified immunity for state and federal employees
State and federal employees (such as prison guards in state prisons) are immune from lawsuits (meaning they cannot be sued) unless the lawsuit alleges a violation of a clearly established statutory or constitutional right.
The Federal Tort Claims Act
If you were injured in federal prison, you must follow federal tort claim procedures. Among other things, this means that, before you file a lawsuit, you need to provide notice of your claim to the appropriate federal agency by filing a Standard Form 95 within 2 years of the incident that caused the injury.
Common types of personal injury lawsuits filed by prisoners
Assuming that qualified immunity doesn’t apply and the claim is legitimate, inmates can file a lawsuit for countless reasons. There are, however, certain types of lawsuits that are more common than others:
- Injuries caused by guards or other jail or prison staff. In certain situations, inmates can file a lawsuit against a guard and the jail or prison that employs the guard for injuries caused by the guard.
- Failure to provide medical care. The United States Supreme Court held that inmates have a right to adequate medical care. If an inmate doesn’t receive adequate care, the inmate can file a lawsuit.
- Wrongful death. If an inmate is killed in prison (by an inmate or a guard), certain surviving family members may be able to file a wrongful death claim against the responsible party.
- Habeas corpus. A petition for habeas corpus is appropriate when the inmate believes their sentence has expired or the court didn’t have the authority to sentence them in the first place.
Inmates can file (and in some cases, already have filed) lawsuits against jails and prisons for failing to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
There are several different legal theories that can be used to support a lawsuit based on an inmate contracting the coronavirus. However, most of the lawsuits filed to date argue that the jail or prison violated the inmate’s Eighth Amendment rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by exposing them to the risk of illness and death from COVID-19.
Do I need to hire a lawyer?
You have a right to sue without a lawyer (known as “pro se”). However, inmates face several obstacles when suing a jail or prison that people who are not in prison don’t face. Consequently, you should strongly consider hiring an attorney.
Some nonprofit organizations represent prisoners for free or at a reduced cost. If you have a good chance of winning your lawsuit, a lawyer might take your case on a contingency-fee-basis. This means you’ll pay the attorney a percentage of your award if you win, but you don’t have to pay the lawyer anything if you lose.