Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Calif. court finds for abused trans prisoner

Abuse of trans people in jails and prisons - either by prison staff, or by other inmates because of the neglect of prison staff - is rampant, and yet courts typically rejects suits by trans prisoners. Arthur Leonard reports on a happy exception in a very unhappy case. The plaintiff, a trans woman placed in a male prison, suffered repeated threats, assaults, and rapes - including by her cellmate - before prison officials finally responded to her complaints. A California appeals court rejected a claim based on her constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment - the standard for such claims based on neglect is very high, and notably it was originally set out by the Supreme Court in rejecting similar claims by an incarcerated trans woman. But, the court here said that the plaintiff could sue under the basic state law of negligence.

In this case, [the judge] noted with some surprise that California courts had never previously addressed the question whether the state’s tort law recognized a "special relationship" between inmates and jailers on which to ground a duty to protect. Generally, tort law imposes no duty on an individual to protect another individual from harm, but such a duty can be found if there is a special relationship such that the law will impose responsibility on an individual for the protection of another. Such a special relationship can be found if an individual has control over the environment of the other, and the other is particularly vulnerable to harm.

The court found that the situation of an inmate fit squarely within this description, which can be found in decisions by the courts of many other states and has been described in leading torts treatises by respected scholars. An inmate has no control over his environment, which is controlled by the jailer, and is vulnerable because he is not allowed to have weapons or any lawful means to protect himself against attack within the prison.

As Leonard notes, the state would be very wise to settle this case.

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