Federal Court Rules WY Prison Officials Have Duty to Protect Inmates in their Custody

Affiliate: ACLU of Wyoming
November 27, 2002 12:00 am

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CHEYENNE, WY-Setting an important new standard for prisoner safety, a federal court today ruled that state prison officials have a duty to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners, the American Civil Liberties Unions announced.

“This decision will save lives and end needless suffering by requiring prison officials to develop plans for inmate safety and properly implement them,” said Stephen Pevar, an ACLU national staff attorney who argued the case. “It will have an immediate and tremendous impact on the Wyoming prison system and will likely be influential elsewhere. It is one of the most comprehensive decisions on inmate safety ever issued.”

The ACLU class-action lawsuit, Skinner v. Uphoff, was filed in February on behalf of Wyoming State Penitentiary inmate Brad Skinner and all present and future inmates at the facility. The lawsuit sought damages for Skinner — victim of a brutal attack in his cell by other inmates on November 4, 1999 – as well as an order requiring prison officials to take reasonable measures to ensure the safety of all inmates. The federal court today ruled on the broader class-action claim. The damages claim will be considered by the court on February 17, 2003.

Specifically, the court today found that prison officials have:

  • Failed to properly investigate inmate-on-inmate assaults to determine whether staff error, staff misconduct, or some institutional deficiency contributed to or caused the assault.
  • Failed to properly discipline prison employees whose errors or misconduct have contributed to or caused an inmate-on-inmate assault.
  • Enacted a policy and custom known as a “code of silence,” under which they and their employees fail to document and report the staff errors, staff misconduct, and institutional deficiencies that have contributed to or caused inmate-on-inmate assaults.

The court also found that a culture exists at the prison “that may make it difficult for senior administrators to properly supervise and discipline staff,” and determined that “a remedy must be developed to counter this ‘culture.'”

According to today’s ruling, the defendants in the case — Judith Uphoff, Director of the Wyoming Department of Corrections and Vance Everett, Warden of the Wyoming State Penitentiary — must submit proposed remedial plans that will correct the prison’s “institutional deficiencies.”

Timothy Kingston and Shirley Kingston of Wyoming are serving as volunteer attorneys in the case.

Today’s ruling is online at /node/35141

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