E-NEWS - 2011

U.S. Supreme Court Reaffirms Duty of Officials to Protect Prisoners from Rape and Retaliation

In a decision released today, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a lower court's ruling that officials who retaliated against a prisoner when she reported being raped by a prison staff member were immune from litigation. Speaking for the Court in Ortiz v. Jordan, Justice Ginsberg highlighted pre-existing law establishing that officials can be held liable for failing to protect an inmate who they know is at risk of harm.

"The right of inmates to be free from abuse, and the duty of officials to protect this right, should be apparent," said Melissa Rothstein, Senior Program Director at Just Detention International. "All too often, however, courts are unable or unwilling to hold officials accountable when they disregard their duty."

Michelle Ortiz was raped on two consecutive nights by a prison official. She reported the first rape to case manager Paula Jordan, who did nothing to prevent the second rape. Ortiz reported the second rape and, in retaliation, prison investigator Rebecca Bright placed her in solitary confinement, shackled and handcuffed, without sufficient heat, clothing, or bedding. In a 1994 case (Farmer v. Brennan), the Supreme Court recognized the duty of officials to take reasonable measures to protect inmates who they know or should know are at risk of abuse.

Prior to trial, Bright and Jordan asked the court to dismiss the case, arguing that they should not be held responsible for the second rape or the punitive conditions imposed on Ortiz. The trial court rejected this argument and a full jury found Jordan and Bright guilty of violating Ortiz's constitutional rights. After the trial, the defendants did not raise the question of their immunity from the lawsuit with the judge -- as procedurally required if they wished to make that argument on appeal, which they did. Nonetheless, on appeal, the Sixth Circuit overturned the jury verdict, ruling that the defendants were not legally responsible. Today's Supreme Court reversed that decision, confirming that the defendants failed to follow court rules for appealing after a trial.

"This is a technical case, but an important one. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, inmates who bring civil rights cases must meet strict procedural rules that tend to be both unrealistic and confusing. Courts consistently hold inmates to these requirements," Rothstein said. "Ortiz was brave and capable enough to succeed in bringing her case to trial. Under those circumstances, it's unconscionable for a court to allow prison officials to ignore procedural rules that apply to them. The Supreme Court's ruling today is important in demanding prison staff accountability."

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