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Legal Liability Trends for Correctional Suicides

D. Ross. The liability trends of custodial suicides. American Jails 24. A1: 37-39, 41-42, 45-47, 2010.

By Lori Whitten, Staff Writer, RTI International, Rockville, MD

Deaths in correctional custody, including inmate suicides, often lead to civil lawsuits against officers and administrators. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Estelle v. Gamble (1976) established that inmates could sue if harmed while corrections personnel showed delibThis is a photograph of a brass scale (representing justice) and a judge’s gavel erate indifference. This legal standard was refined in Farmer v. Brennan (1994), a decision that held inmates must prove that correctional personnel knew about a “strong likelihood” of risk that threatened the prisoner’s health or safety and consciously and recklessly disregarded it. Although these cases did not specifically address prisoner suicide, lower courts have applied the legal standard of deliberate indifference to this issue.

Has the Farmer v. Brennan decision—which applies a heightened standard and a stricter, narrower definition of deliberate indifference—made it more difficult for prisoners or their families to prevail in lawsuits against corrections personnel in cases involving suicide? Yes, according to an analysis by Darrell L. Ross, Ph.D., of Valdosta State University in Georgia. Before the Farmer decision, those suing on behalf of prisoners who had committed suicide prevailed in 29 percent of litigation cases (see top panel of Figure) and afterward, in only 17 percent (see bottom panel of figure)—cutting almost in half the percentage of cases won by plaintiffs.

Although all types of correctional facilities have a high prevailing rate in litigation, police lock-ups prevailed at a lower rate than jails or prisons, Ross found. The analysis also indicated that appellate courts rarely overturn a lower court’s verdict. Ross’ longitudinal analysis examined more than 2,000 case decisions on prisoner suicides from 1980 to 2008.

Ross notes that “…case examples show that neither an officer nor an administrator will incur liability for a custodial suicide if necessary precautions to prevent the suicide are in place and followed (p. 45).” According to Ross, correctional facilities can defend against claims of deliberate indifference by establishing written policies and implementing practices that address the common litigated areas. He recommends that they:

  • Develop policies and procedures describing suicide intervention strategies that are aligned with State standards.
  • Establish and implement a training program for officers based on policy and procedures.
  • Implement appropriate booking, screening, and classification practices at prisoner reception.
  • Embed documented protocols for placing prisoners on suicide watch in monitoring procedures and practices.
  • Implement search practices that remove dangerous items from prisoners during inspection of the cells and the facility.
  • Develop a close working relationship with health care personnel in delivering and maintaining adequate health care services to prisoners.

Longitudinal trends in lawsuits on inmate suicides and assessments of how courts apply the legal standard of deliberate indifference may help correctional facilities refine their policies, modify protocols, and develop new practices in ways that reduce the likelihood of liability, Ross says. Future research should examine lower court rulings regarding inmate claims that correctional facilities failed to protect them from suicide risk or had conditions of confinement that increased this risk. Correctional facilities would benefit from more research on the best policies and practices for suicide intervention and prisoner health care.

For more information contact Dr. Darrell L. Ross, professor and department head, Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice at Valdosta State University,

Prisoner Suicide: Impact of Court Decision on Correctional Personnel Liability

The 1994 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Farmer v. Brennan reduced the percentage of prisoners who prevail in lawsuits against corrections personnel regarding deliberate indifference to suicide risk.


A comparison of the two pie charts pictured shows that the percentage of successful lawsuits filed against corrections personnel for deliberate indifference to suicide risk dropped after the Farmer V. Brennan case was decided by the Supreme Court in 1994. A comparison of the two pie charts pictured shows that the percentage of successful lawsuits filed against corrections personnel for deliberate indifference to suicide risk dropped after the Farmer V. Brennan case was decided by the Supreme Court in 1994.

Posted Mon, Jul 16 2012 12:23 PM by Tracey Vessels


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