Prison officials who showed deliberate indifference to risk posed to inmate placed in integrated prison yard not immune from suit

Prison officials who showed deliberate indifference to risk posed to inmate placed in integrated prison yard not immune from suit

Robinson v. Prunty, 249 F.3d 862 (9th Cir. 2001).

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that prison officials were not entitled to qualified immunity because of their deliberate indifference to the risk posed to an inmate who was attacked after being put in a racially integrated prison yard.

Here, Robinson, an African American prison inmate, was reportedly attacked twice in a prison yard because of his race. He sued prison officials and correctional officers under 42 U.S.C. (secs)1983, alleging their operation of the integrated exercise yards at the prison constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Specifically, plaintiff claimed that defendants were deliberately indifferent to the substantial risk that plaintiff could be seriously injured if placed in an integrated yard. Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing they were entitled to qualified immunity. The trial court denied the motion, finding that there was a triable issue of fact as to whether defendants were deliberately indifferent to the risk posed to plaintiff.

Affirming, the Ninth Circuit noted that government officials enjoy qualified immunity unless the unlawfulness of their conduct is clear. To determine whether an official is entitled to qualified immunity, the court explained, courts must (1) identify the right allegedly violated, (2) determine whether the right was clearly established, and (3) determine whether reasonable officials would have believed their conduct was lawful.

The first factor is met, the court said, because plaintiff has alleged that the specific right violated is his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Turning to the second factor, the court, citing case law, said that at the time of the attacks, the law regarding defendants’ duties to take reasonable measures to protect inmates from violence by other prisoners was clearly established.

Addressing the third factor, the court found that, if plaintiff’s evidence is true, then no reasonable prison officials could have believed their conduct was lawful. According to plaintiff, defendants were aware that placing inmates of different races in the same yard presented a serious risk of violent outbreaks. The alleged frequency of outbreaks, the jokes defendants reportedly made before releasing an inmate of a different race into the same yard that plaintiff was in, and defendants’ failure to intervene during the attacks on plaintiff, the court found, support a finding that defendants were indifferent to the risk to plaintiff. Thus, defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity, the court concluded.

Plaintiffs Counsel

George H. Robinson, Crescent City, Cal., pro se

Copyright Association of Trial Lawyers of America Oct 2001

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