Private Prisons and Accountability

Last week, in Minneci v. Pollard (No. 10-1104), the United States Supreme Court held that employees of privately run federal prisons cannot be sued for money damages for violations of constitutional rights.  By coincidence, last week also saw the release of a new report on private prisons by the Sentencing Project.  The report raises a multitude of concerns with private prisons, which may leave the reader troubled that the Supreme Court has now chosen to diminish the accountability of for-profit jailers.

Here are the (quite critical) conclusions of the Sentencing Project:


Results vary somewhat, but when inconsistencies and research errors are adjusted the savings associated with investing in private prisons appear dubious. Even minimal savings are far from guaranteed, and many studies claiming otherwise have been criticized for their methodology. The available data belies the oft-claimed economic benefits of private contracting, and points to the practice being an unreliable approach toward financial stability.

Even if private prisons can manage to hold down costs, this success often comes at the detriment of services provided. Nationwide, public funds for prisons are already limited, leaving little excess spending that can be cut. Therefore, private prisons must make cuts in important high-cost areas such as staff, training, and programming to create savings.  The pressure that companies feel to maintain low overhead costs combined with less direct oversight are likely what led researchers at the University of Utah to conclude that, “quality of services is not improved” in private prisons.

Finally, private prison companies’ dependence on ensuring a large prison population to maintain profits provides inappropriate incentives to lobby government officials for policies that will place more people in prison. This is evidenced by the creation and coordination of model legislation through conservative lobbying groups, as well as in the political contributions and lobbying efforts of individual companies. This effort to increase reliance on incarceration comes at a time where America’s rate of imprisonment is the highest in the world and when the prison population is far beyond the point of diminishing returns in terms of public safety.

The available evidence does not point to any substantial benefits to privatizing prisons. Although there are instances where private prisons result in small savings, the structure and demands of for-profit prisons appear to produce a negative overall impact on services. In order to reconcile this information with the continued claims that private prisons are superior, one must assume that these contentions are couched more in ideology than in facts.

With that backdrop in mind, here’s what happened in Minneci v. Pollard.  The inmate plaintiff, Pollard, alleged that he was injured in a fall and that the injury was mishandled by prison medical staff and other prison employees in ways that amounted to “deliberate indifference” in violation of the Eighth Amendment.  He sued for damages under Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), which permits such lawsuits against federal agents for violations of constitutional rights.  However, the Supreme Court has generally taken a restrictive approach to Bivens actions since about 1980, including its decision in Correctional Services Corp. v. Malesko, 534 U.S. 61 (2001), which ruled out Bivens actions against the corporations that run private prisons.

Malesko did not necessarily foreclose Pollard’s claim because Pollard was suing individual employees, not the corporation as a whole.  In the end, however, eight justices saw no reason to recognize the distinction, with only Justice Ginsburg deciding to the contrary.

For the majority, the key to the case was that the defendants could have been sued under state tort law; in their view, it seems that Bivens only provides a stop-gap remedy for constitutional violations that lie beyond the reach of tort law.  This does seem consistent with the thrust of recent Bivens jurisprudence.

But it is important to note that the Court does not insist that plaintiffs must necessarily fare as well under state law as under Bivens:

We note, as Pollard points out, that state tort law may sometimes prove less generous than would a Bivens action, say, by capping damages, see Cal. Civ. Code Ann. §3333.2(b) (West 1997), or by forbidding recovery for emotional suffering unconnected with physical harm, see 629 F. 3d, at 864, or by imposing procedural obstacles, say, initially requiring the use of expert administrative panels in medical malpractice cases, see, e.g., Me. Rev. Stat. Ann., Tit. 24, §2853, (Supp. 2010); Mass. Gen. Laws, ch. 231, §60B (West 2010). But we cannot find in this fact sufficient basis to determine state law inadequate.

. . . .

Rather, in principle, the question is whether, in general, state tort law remedies provide roughly similar incentives for potential defendants to comply with the Eighth Amendment while also providing roughly similar compensation to victims of violations.  (10-11)

This begs the question, of course, of just how robust a state-law remedy must be in order to count as “roughly similar.”  The Court did leave itself a little wiggle room in this regard to handle different sorts of Eighth Amendment claims against private defendants differently in the future:

[W]e concede that we cannot prove a negative or be totally certain that the features of state tort law relevant here will universally prove to be, or remain, as we have described them. Nonetheless, we are certain enough about the shape of present law as applied to the kind of case before us to leave different cases and different state laws to another day. That is to say, we can decide whether to imply a Bivens action in a case where an Eighth Amendment claim or state law differs significantly from those at issue here when and if such a case arises. (11-12)

Cross posted at Marquette Law Faculty Blog.