US & World

Supreme Court hears case on privately run federal prison in California

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Can prisoners sue employees at a federal detention facility operated by a private company? That’s the question before the U.S. Supreme Court today. The case involves a private prison in Taft, California.

The U.S. Supreme Court has previously ruled that private prison corporations are not subject to lawsuits from prisoners who say they’ve experienced cruel and unusual punishment in those facilities. Today the high court heard oral arguments about whether prisoners can sue employees at those private federal detention centers.

Inmate Richard Lee Pollard was working in the prison butcher shop at the privately run Taft Correctional Institution. He fell and injured his elbows, then sued employees of the private prison.

But U.S. Supreme Court justices asked Pollard’s attorney John Preis why his client hadn't sued in state court. Preis told the court that the only law books available in the prison library dealt with federal law.

"How are you supposed to ascertain state law if you’re in a federal prison and you don’t have any access to state law books?" Preis said.

Jonathan Franklin argued for the GEO Group; it calls itself one of the largest private prison companies in the world. After oral arguments, Franklin warned that a decision in the inmate's favor could affect many more employees than those who work at federal prisons. "The principle that the other side is espousing could well apply to contractors in all sorts of spheres."

Defense attorney Preis said that's "simply not the case."

"We don’t think that if this court rules in favor of a cause of action here that every contractor, everyone who repairs the plumbing in the White House, will all of a sudden be on the hook for obeying the Constitution," Preis said. "That’s because there’s a whole separate field of law that says just because you’re engaged in a contract with the federal government doesn’t mean that you actually have to obey the same rules as the federal government itself."

More than 25,000 federal prisoners live in more than a dozen privately run detention facilities across the country.