Court of Appeals: Prison Employees Aren't Liable for Inmate's Attack

Let's say an inmate is attacked by fellow inmates wearing masks, then put in an isolated environment for a 30-day period, presumably for protection while the matter is sorted out. The inmate pleads to correctional officers to be kept in protective custody, claiming that his assailants warned his "life was in danger" if he ever were to return to the general population.

Ultimately, the inmate is released back into the general population and is promptly attacked again. Who is responsible?

Not the correctional officers. At least, not according to the U.S. Court of Appeals, who issued an opinion yesterday on the case of John Buff, an inmate at Southeast Correctional Center, near Cape Girardeau, who in 2005 went through such an experience.

In a divided ruling, a three-person panel of judges for the Eighth Circuit ruled that because Buff could not identify his original assailants -- you'll recall they were wearing masks during the attack -- the correctional officers couldn't possibly have been able to pinpoint any imminent threats to Bluff. Therefore, the judges argued, they shouldn't be held liable for subsequent attacks.

Judge Kermit Edward Bye dissented with his colleagues, arguing that prison officials must have certainly have known there was a risk of harm to Buff, and therefore Buff should not have been required to prove the corrections officers knew about specific imminent attacks.

The decision to return Buff to the general population, said Bye, violated his Eighth Amendment rights, which prohibit cruel and unusual punishment.

Buff sued 32 employees of the prison following the second attack, during which he was stabbed by two inmates, causing lacerations to his chest, side and shoulder.

Following the first attack, Buff notified certain officials -- in multiple written and oral statements -- that his life was in danger. Following his 30-day period of isolation, Buff was placed just five cells away from the site of the initial attack.

In order to win the case, Buff had to show that his release into the general population posed a substantial risk of serious harm, and that the prison employees knew of and disregarded that risk.

In the end, he could not do that.

In his dissent, Judge Bye wrote: "Regardless of how prison officials become subjectively aware of a substantial risk of serious harm to an inmate -- and indeed, even in situations where the prisoner himself remains oblivious to the potential harm -- the Eighth Amendment requires them to respond reasonably ... By placing the onus on Buff to identify his masked assailants, the defendants improperly shifted responsibility on Buff himself."

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