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Section 1983 jail claims based on conditions of confinement

The Fourteenth Amendment provides pretrial detainees with the right to be protected from attack by other inmates while they are incarcerated, but before they have been convicted of a crime.  Indeed, “prison officials have a duty to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners” because corrections officers have “stripped [the inmates] of virtually every means of self-protection and foreclosed their access to outside aid.”  Castro v. Cty. of Los Angeles, 833 F.3d 1060, 1067 (9th Cir. 1026), cert. denied sub nom. Los Angeles Cty., Cal. v. Castro, 137 S. ct. 831 (2017) (citation omitted). 

To prove that a correctional officer deprived a person of this right, the person must prove the following elements:

  • The correctional officer made an intentional decision with respect to the conditions under which the person was confined;
  • Those conditions put the person at substantial risk of suffering serious harm;
  • The correctional officer did not take reasonable available measures to eliminate that risk, even though a reasonable officer in the circumstances would have appreciated the high degree of risk involved—making the consequences of the officer’s conduct obvious.  (The officer’s conduct must, however, be objectively unreasonable); and
  • By not taking such measures, the correctional officer caused the person’s injuries.  Ninth Cir. Civ. Jury Instr. 9.31.

For example, if a corrections officer decided to house an inmate whom he knew to have a history of in-cell attacks with another inmate, and an attack happened resulting in injury or death, the officer may be liable for failure to protect the harmed inmate.  

Objective deliberate indifference to serious medical needs

The Fourteenth Amendment’s due-process clause guarantees constitutionally adequate medical and mental-health care to pretrial detainees awaiting their criminal trials.

A successful section 1983 Fourteenth Amendment claim based on a theory of objective deliberate indifference must make the same four factual showings to prove a failure-to-protect claim:

  • The jail employee made an intentional decision about the detainee’s conditions of confinement;
  • Those conditions put the detainee at substantial risk of suffering serious harm;
  • The jail employee did not take reasonable available measures to eliminate that risk, even though a reasonable jail employee in the circumstances would have appreciated the risk involved, thereby making the consequences of the jail employee’s conduct obvious; and
  • By not taking such measures to decrease the risk of harm, the jail employee caused the detainee’s injuries (or death).  Gordon v. Cty. of Orange, 888 F.3d 1118, 1124-25 (9th Cir. 2018). 

Such claims are fact-intensive, requiring investigation into what each individual jail employee did or failed to do and into the jail’s policies, procedures, and customs.

For example, jails recognize their duty to prevent suicide in jails by housing suicidal detainees in “safety cells” and dress them in “safety smocks” which deprive a suicidal person of the means (bedding, clothing) to hang themselves with.  A correctional officer’s decision to house a known suicidal person in a cell with access to bedding and other things that the suicidal detainee used to commit suicide might make the correctional officer liable. The municipality running the jail—such as a county—and the corporation to which it contracts for the provision of mental-health care may also be liable if a custom, policy, or procedure (or lack thereof) caused the person’s suicide.

Section 1983 jail claims survive death

Where a pretrial detainee died due to a use of force or conditions of confinement, certain qualified survivors—known in California law as “successors-in-interest”—may also bring § 1983 “survival” claims to vindicate their deceased loved one’s constitutional rights to be free of excessive force.