Section 1983 claims for failure to prevent prison suicide

Prison Suicides and official's duty to prevent

Constitutional Rights of Inmates

When an inmate is at risk of committing suicide, prison officials are obligated to take certain actions.

Recently, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed a Section 1983 constitutional claim arising from a prison suicide.

In Arenas v. Calhoun (decided April 26, 2019), the facts were as follows:

While patrolling a unit of a state prison, Officer Calhoun saw that Inmate Tavara was hanging from a bedsheet wrapped around his neck. Looking through a small window, Officer Calhoun could not determine whether Tavara was actually hanging or was staging suicide to draw officers into the cell.

Calhoun summoned for backup and waited for a supervisor to determine when it was safe to open the door. Seven minutes later, prison staff entered the cell, but Tavara was dead.

Tavara’s mother filed suit against Calhoun pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, claiming that Calhoun violated her son’s Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.

The district court granted summary judgment to Calhoun.

Maria Tavara appeals

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit began its analysis by noting that the Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

The Court noted that the Eighth Amendment requires that “prison officials ensure that inmates receive adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, and take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates.”

The Fifth Circuit further explained that to prevail on an Eighth Amendment claim, an inmate must establish two elements.

First, he must demonstrate that the alleged deprivation was objectively serious, exposing him “to a substantial risk of serious harm” and resulting “in the denial of the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.”

Second, an inmate must prove that the prison official possessed “a subjectively culpable state of mind” in that he exhibited “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs.”

A prison official displays deliberate indifference only if he (1) “knows that inmates face a substantial risk of serious bodily harm” and (2) “disregards that risk by failing to take reasonable measures to abate it.”

How do these principles apply to risk of suicide?

The Court recognized that suicide is an objectively serious harm implicating the state’s duty to provide adequate medical care.

Calhoun acknowledged that he knew Tavara faced a substantial risk of harm upon seeing him with a ligature around his neck.

Thus, the only question was whether Calhoun “effectively disregarded” the known risk that Tavara might kill himself. The Fifth Circuit concluded that “Calhoun did no such thing.”

Within seconds of observing Tavara’s plight, Calhoun placed four radio calls for assistance. He then obtained the key and awaited the arrival of the promised support.

It is true that help did not appear for roughly five minutes. But entering the dormitory alone would have jeopardized Calhoun’s personal safety and that of the prison itself, said the Court.

The Fifth Circuit explained that there is “no rule of constitutional law that requires unarmed officials to endanger their own safety in order to protect a prison inmate.”

Furthermore, officers “should be accorded wide-ranging deference in the execution of policies and practices that in their judgment are needed to preserve internal order and discipline and to maintain institutional security.”

Thus, Calhoun was not deliberately indifferent, and he was entitled to summary judgment.

Read more about Section 1983 here.

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