Injured in Jail or Prison: How Inmates Can Sue for Compensation

Prisoners injured in jail or prison have a right to seek compensation. Here’s what inmates need to know about injury claims against correctional facilities.

More than 2 million adults are inmates of federal prisons, state penitentiaries, and county jails throughout the United States. ¹

Prisons are long-term correctional institutions normally housing inmates with sentences for more than one year, while jails house inmates with sentences of a year or less.

Jails are also holding areas for recently sentenced inmates waiting for transfer to state and federal prisons.

The term prison refers to state and federal correctional institutions, while jail refers to city and county facilities.

Some correctional facilities are run by for-profit private businesses under contract from the state or federal agency. Private prisons and jails currently hold approximately 128,000 prisoners, roughly eight percent of all incarcerated adults. ²

Opponents to privatization assert that prisoners are at much higher risk of injury or illness in privately run prisons and jails.

Despite the guards and surveillance cameras monitoring inmates round the clock, prisoners continue to suffer injury and illness in private and public correctional facilities.

Here’s what you need to know about seeking compensation for injuries suffered in jail or prison.

Common Causes of Injuries in Jail

Incarcerated individuals lose some of their civil rights, but not all of them. Inmates have a right to expect a decent standard of living, even in jail.

When authorities fail to provide or enforce a minimum standard of health and safety protection, prisoners end up hurt. Common causes of prisoner injuries include:

Slip and falls: Inmates aren’t immune from slip and fall injuries.  Inmates can slip, trip, and fall on wet floors, uneven flooring, spilled food or other debris, and from trying to walk while shackled.  Fall injuries range from cuts and bruises to muscle or tendon strain, broken bones, head injuries, and more.

Transport vehicle crashes: Prisoners may be transported to court, medical facilities, from jail to prison, or outside work programs. Depending on the circumstances, vans, buses, cars, and even planes can transfer inmates. Police and prison vehicles are just as likely to have accidents as other motor vehicles.

If the transport driver caused the crash, the injured prisoner could pursue a claim against the correctional institution. If another driver caused the accident, injured prisoners have a right to file an injury claim against the at-fault driver’s insurance company.

Assault by another inmate: One of the most common forms of state and prison inmate injuries arise from attacks by other prisoners. Attacks range from petty shoving to rape or murder.

Staff misconduct: Incarcerated men and women are particularly helpless to defend themselves from unprovoked violent attacks or sexual assault by guards or other correctional facility employees.

Deficient medical care: Inmates can be injured by incompetent medical staff. Prisoners may suffer and die from withheld or poorly managed treatment for common conditions like diabetes, epilepsy, pregnancy, cancer, mental illness, and more.

Unsanitary conditions: When you combine overpopulation with continual inmate transfers, it’s no wonder jail conditions lead to rampant infections. Prisoners with poor hygiene, dirty cells, poorly cleaned kitchen facilities, and improperly sterilized bed wraps are a constant source of bacteria.

When officials fail to maintain the cleanliness of the institution and its facilities, infections and sickness are the usual results.

Dangerous conditions: Overcrowding, poorly trained staff, inadequate monitoring of suicidal inmates, and poor planning for inmate safety in the event of a fire are just a few examples of deplorable conditions that lead to prisoner injuries and death.

Federal Laws Affecting Prison Injury Claims

Prison and jail officials have a legal duty to use reasonable care in the protection of inmates’ safety and well being. When officials violate their duty and that violation results in an inmate’s injuries, the inmate has a right file a complaint and may also have the right to pursue compensation.

Outside institution walls, if the person responsible for your injuries doesn’t have insurance, you can file a lawsuit against the at-fault person. The process is much more complicated for injured prisoners.

It helps to understand some of the rules and laws that come into play when an incarcerated person is injured or killed.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA)

The Prisoner Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) was enacted in 1996 to reduce the number of lawsuits filed by inmates against their respective prison or jail authorities. It worked.

Under PLRA, prisoners cannot file a lawsuit in federal court until they have met the “exhaustion” requirement:

“No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title, or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.”

Broken down in plain talk:

The PLRA must be followed no matter where you are. It doesn’t matter if you’re in federal prison or the county jail.

“Administrative remedies” are the rules established by the correction facility for making a complaint. The correctional facility can make the inmate grievance or complaint procedures as complicated as they want. Remedy is another word for resolution, or fix for a problem.

“Exhausted” means the inmate must first try to get their issue resolved by following every single administrative rule set by the facility before the inmate can file a lawsuit.

The phrase “remedies as are available” can be helpful to injured prisoners if they can show that the facility rules are too complicated or too difficult to follow. In other words, a remedy is not available to a prisoner if the rules for the remedy are impossible to follow.

Qualified Immunity for Correctional Center Employees

Qualified immunity protects state and federal employees from damages for civil liability so long as they did not violate a prisoner’s “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights.

Employees of privately-run prisons and jails don’t enjoy the same immunity as government employees. Talk to a personal injury attorney about your injury claim against a private facility.

Protected employees include law enforcement officers and correctional facility guards. Immunity allows guards and other correctional facility workers to do their jobs without fear of being sued by inmates who might get hurt.

The prison guard who injured you can claim immunity unless you can prove:

  1. The law governing the guard’s conduct was clearly established.
  2. Under that law, any reasonable guard would know that conduct was illegal.

For example, if an inmate refused to return to his cell and the guard roughly shoved him into the cell and slammed the cell door, the guard is probably immune to injury claims if the inmate fell against the sink and broke his nose when he was shoved. No clear law prohibits forcing a prisoner into their cell.

The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA)

Unlike private citizens who can file an injury claim directly with a negligent party’s insurance company, inmates must file their claims using federal tort claim procedures. Although qualified immunity protects federal prison authorities, the immunity can be challenged when it comes to prison inmate injuries caused by negligence.

To begin your injury claim, you must file a Standard Form 95. This form serves as your notice of claim or notice of intent to seek damages from the federal government for your injuries. If you’ve been hurt while in a federal prison or holding facility, you have two years from the date of your injury to file your claim.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) must respond to a prison inmate’s injury claim. If the DOJ accepts your claim for damages, you get paid. If the DOJ denies your claim, you have six months to hire an attorney and file a lawsuit.

The six-month period begins on the day the department officially denies your claim, not from the date of your injury. The forms for your lawsuit are in the prison library. The FTCA is only available to inmates of federal prisons.

Section 1083 of the Civil Rights Act

Unlike federal inmates, injured state, city, and county inmates have narrower choices. Each state has its own tort claims process. Unfortunately, most states retain immunity from prisoner complaints of neglect and injury.

State penitentiary and county jail inmates can pursue their injury complaints under Section 1083 of the Civil Rights Act, to the extent their injuries are related to violation of their civil rights.

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” This significant amendment and subsequent case law provide many important protections for prisoners in federal, state, and municipal correction facilities.

Prisoners have the right to expect protection from:

  • Excessive force and physical brutality
  • Rape and other forms of sexual assault
  • Unsafe conditions, such as lack of security or overcrowding
  • Unhealthy conditions, particularly involving shelter, food, hygiene, and medical care

Prison Rape Elimination Act

Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003 with bi-partisan support. The act is intended to:

“[P]rovide for the analysis of the incidence and effects of prison rape in Federal, State, and local institutions and to provide information, resources, recommendations, and funding to protect individuals from prison rape.”

PREA will not directly help inmates who have suffered sexual abuse. However, the information and guidelines developed under PREA may provide additional support to prisoner rape injury claims.

Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides the same protection for disabled inmates as any other person. Disabled inmates must be provided equal access to prison facilities.

However, the accommodations provided by the correctional facility are only required to be reasonable, not the best available.

Proving Your Prison Injury Claim

Damages in civilian injury claims can include medical bills, out-of-pocket medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering. However, inmates don’t receive medical bills, and they don’t have to pay for medical care. Lost wages due to injuries are minimal, usually amounting to only a few dollars a day.

The primary damages for an inmate are future medical expenses after release, future lost wages, and pain and suffering.

To succeed in a personal injury claim, an inmate must prove three elements:

  1. The correctional facility breached its duty of care (obligation)
  2. The correctional facility knew or should have known the inmate could be injured
  3. The facility’s negligence resulted in verifiable injuries

Without evidence to prove all three elements, your injury claim will fail.

Gathering evidence in a jail or prison can be challenging. Being creative can help you gather evidence while staying within the institution’s rules and regulations.

Photographic and video evidence:  Inmates aren’t usually allowed to have smartphones or cameras. But that doesn’t mean you can’t document the circumstance causing your injury.

A friendly guard may agree to photograph the scene. So might a chaplain, social worker, or counselor. If that doesn’t work, you can send a request directly to the warden’s office. Photos of the jail condition causing your injury are compelling evidence of negligence.

Since video surveillance is everywhere in jails and prisons, the institution’s video system may have already captured the circumstances surrounding your injury. Unfortunately, you may have a tough time obtaining copies of the video footage without an attorney issuing a subpoena.

Witnesses and witness statements: You’ll have to rely on other prisoners or guards to back up your side of the story. Other inmates who were aware of the danger may agree to write out their statements supporting your claim.

Even if they didn’t see the injury happen, they might have known the dangerous condition existed. Better yet, they may have previously notified the guards of the danger.

Example: Witness to prison guard negligence

Another inmate assaulted and injured you. The prison just released the other inmate from solitary confinement. The guards had heard for days before the inmate’s release that he planned to attack you at his first opportunity.

Despite all previous warnings, the guards didn’t inform you of the impending attack or take any action to stop the inmate from harming you. When the inmate returned, he followed through on his threats and attacked you, causing severe injuries.

Other inmates serving meals in the solitary cell block heard the inmate tell guards of his plans to hurt you. Statements from these witnesses will support your injury claim.

Make sure to ask witnesses to write down in detail what the violent inmate told the guards, which guards he told, and the guards’ responses. Have your witnesses sign and date their statements.

Written requests to authorities: Previously written notification to correctional officials is very strong evidence. The slang term for written requests from prisoners is “kites.” Correctional institutions keep all official kites for the duration of your incarceration.

Your kites could help prove the correctional facility was negligent if you wrote repeated notifications of a dangerous situation to officials, all to no avail. Those kites can serve as strong evidence the officials knew the dangerous condition existed and could have prevented your injuries.

Example: Neglected by prison dentist

You’ve suffered from an abscessed tooth for some time. Your repeated kites to the prison dentist went unanswered. Several weeks passed. During that time, the abscess spread inside your mouth, resulting in multiple tooth extractions and hospitalization for blood poisoning.

All the extra dental work, hospitalization and pain you suffered was avoidable. If the dentist had answered your kites promptly and provided you with adequate dental care, you would not have become gravely ill.

Injuries and medical care: Medical records linking the correctional institution’s negligence to your injuries is crucial to your claim. Don’t try to hide injuries or their cause.

Ask for medical care. Tell the medical provider exactly how and when you were injured. When your treatment is finished, request copies of all your medical records.

Example: Injured in prison laundry

You were hurt when a steam ironing machine malfunctioned, blasting hot steam on your face and hands. You suffered severe, painful burns. An ambulance took you to the closest hospital where you were treated in the emergency room.

In a situation like this, ask the doctor to make clear in the treatment notes what caused your injuries.

A physician isn’t an expert in hot ironing machines, so you can’t expect medical notes to say how the machine malfunctioned. So long as the treatment records mention that a steam ironing machine caused your injuries, that’s enough the help your claim.

Attorneys Win Difficult Cases

Every inmate in a United States prison, jail or holding facility has the right to humane conditions and treatment. Prisoners can get hurt in any correctional facility. Injuries can be caused by anything from a simple trip and fall to a violent physical attack.

If your injuries were caused by the negligence of the jail or prison, you have the right to seek compensation for your injuries, pain and suffering. But it won’t be easy.

If your injuries are minor, like a sprained wrist from slipping on a dirty floor, you have nothing much to lose by trying to handle a claim on your own.

Severe injuries, or injuries caused by conditions that threaten your health and safety, require a legal expert to overcome administrative hurdles and help ensure your safety.

A skilled personal injury attorney can deal with prison red tape, dangerous jail conditions, and uncooperative officials in ways you just can’t.

If you or a loved one have suffered serious injuries while incarcerated in a federal or state correctional facility, don’t try to handle the case alone.

Gather your evidence and contact an experienced personal injury attorney. It costs nothing to find out what a good attorney can do for you.

Inmate Injury Claim Questions & Answers

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>