(CN) - Prison officials may be liable after an inmate was told he could kill the cellmate he didn't want, the 8th Circuit ruled. "Kill him," a guard allegedly said. "I don't care. I go home at 4 p.m."
Trevis Caldwell said Jeremy Pinson, his cellmate at the federal prison in Talladega, Ala., stabbed him and held him hostage less than a week after that fateful remark from unit manager William Elston.
A federal judge in Birmingham nevertheless rejected Caldwell's deliberate indifference claims and granted summary judgment to Elston and two prison lieutenants also named as defendants.
The New Orleans-based federal appeals court reversed on April 7, finding that "the record contains sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find the subjective element of Caldwell's Eighth Amendment failure-to-protect claim."
"A reasonably jury could infer from these facts that the defendants actually knew Caldwell faced a substantial risk of serious harm from inmate Pinson," Judge Frank Hull wrote for a three-member panel. "The defendants knew that inmate Pinson had a violent past, was very disruptive, and needed greater management."
Pinson has a known history of "assaults on inmates and staff that resulted in serious and minor injuries," according to evidence Caldwell presented to the court.
A medium-security federal prison, FCI-Talladega made the news in 1991 when 121 inmates rioted and took over the prison for 10 days to block their deportation to Cuba.
The complaint says Pinson was transferred to Talladega on Aug. 6, 2009, and that Caldwell arrived on Aug. 18.
Elston allegedly made the "kill him" remark on Sept. 4 after Pinson protested because Caldwell had been assigned as his cellmate.
The stabbing occurred on Sept. 10, one day after Pinson started a fire in the cell, according to the complaint. Caldwell said he had told Elston and Lt. Vernessa Williams after the fire that he feared for his life and did not want to return to the cell with Pinson, but the defendants just "smiled [and] shrugged their shoulders."
"Plaintiff Caldwell was in his cell reading a book when inmate Pinson placed Caldwell in a choke-hold until Caldwell passed out," the 30-page opinion states, summarizing the allegations. "When Caldwell regained consciousness, he discovered that he was on the floor and that his hands and feet were bound with fabric. Caldwell was bleeding from his nose and from a gash on his head.
"Inmate Pinson held an 8.5[-inch] shank, with a handle made from cloth, and yelled through the cell door that he was going to kill Caldwell. After approximately 90 minutes of hostage negotiations with prison staff, inmate Pinson agreed to submit to restraints. Thereafter, prison guards removed Caldwell from the cell."