Justices Rule for Jailers|in Inmate Suicide Case

     (CN) – Delaware Corrections Department officials accused of failing to take adequate steps to prevent an inmate’s suicide are entitled to qualified immunity, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday.
     The per curiam opinion reversed an earlier decision by a divided 3rd Circuit panel.
     Christopher Barkes, whom the opinion describes as “a trouble man with a long history of mental health and substance abuse problems,” was arrested on Nov. 3, 2004, for violating his probation.
     He was taken to the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington, Delaware, where nurse employed by a prison contractor performed a medical evaluation that included an assessment of whether an inmate is suicidal.
     The nurse employed a suicide screening form based on a model developed by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care. It lists 17 suicide risk factors, and if 8 or more are present, the nurse is required to notify a physician and to begin suicide prevention measures.
     Barkes told the nurse he had undergone psychiatric treatment and was on medication, and also told her he had tried to commit suicide in the past. But he also indicated he wasn’t thinking of suicide during the interview, and his score on the assessment was well below the level of concern.
     Despite what he told the nurse, before being taken to his cell, Barkes called his wife and told her he was going to kill himself. His wife informed no one of his statements. The next day Barkes was found dead in his cell, having hung himself with a bedsheet.
     Karen Barkes sued Stanley Taylor, commissioner of the Delaware Department of Corrections, and Raphael Williams, the institution’s warden, claiming they violated her husband’s civil rights by failing to prevent his suicide.
     Taylor and Williams moved for summary judgment on the ground they were entitled to qualified immunity, but the district court denied their motion. A divided 3rd Circuit panel later affirmed the ruling that lapses in the suicide screening — namely note relying on a process that complied with the NCCHC’s latest standards, as required under contract — created issues of material fact.
     The lone dissenting judge on the panel said he believed Taylor and Williams were entitled to qualified immunity because the right on which the majority relief was “a departure from Eighth Amendment case law that had never been established before today.”
     The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed the 3rd Circuit ruling, finding that there was no violation of clearly established law.
     “The Third Circuit concluded that the right at issue was best defined as ‘an incarcerated person’s right to the proper implementation of adequate suicide prevention protocols.’ … This purported right, however, was not clearly established in November 2004 in a way that placed beyond debate the unconstitutionality of the Institution’s procedures, as implemented by the medical contractor,” the justices state.
     “No decision of this Court establishes a right to the proper implementation of adequate suicide prevention protocols. No decision of this Court even discusses suicide screening or prevention protocols,” the opinion continues. “The Third Circuit nonetheless found this right clearly established by two of its own decisions, both stemming from the same case.
     “Assuming for the sake of argument that a right can be “clearly established” by circuit precedent despite disagreement in the courts of appeals, neither of the Third Circuit decisions relied upon clearly established the right at issue,” the justices said.
     The decisions the high court references both stemmed from the case, Colburn v. Upper Darby Twp.
     The first decision, which the court referred to as “Colburn 1,” held that when officials know of inmate’s “particular vulnerability” to suicide, they have an obligation not to act with reckless indifference to that vulnerability.
     “The decision did not say, however, that detention facilities must implement procedures to identify such vulnerable inmates, let alone specify what procedures would suffice,” the justices said.
     “Nor would Colburn II have put petitioners on notice of any possible constitutional violation. Colburn II reiterated that officials who know of an inmate’s particular vulnerability to suicide must not be recklessly indifferent to that vulnerability. But it did not identify any minimum screening procedures or prevention protocols that facilities must use” the said later in the opinion.
     “In short, even if the Institution’s suicide screening and prevention measures contained the shortcomings that respondents allege, no precedent on the books in November 2004 would have made clear to petitioners that they were overseeing a system that violated the Constitution;” the justices continued.
     “Because, at the very least, petitioners were not contravening clearly established law, they are entitled to qualified immunity. The judgment of the Third Circuit is reversed,” the court ruled.

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