Training and Documentation: Two Strong Weapons Against Corrections Litigation

As the eyes, ears, and hearts of the judicial system, correctional officers (COs) have rightfully been called the “unsung heroes of public safety.” Unfortunately, for the brave men and women working in our nation’s jails and prisons, the rigors of institutional life can take a toll all their own. Jailers and COs have “one of the highest rates of injuries […] often resulting from confrontations with inmates,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They also suffer PTSD at a rate more than four times higher than that of the general population.

The potential dangers do not stop at the officer’s emotional and physical wellbeing, however. While empty threats of legal action from inmates are certainly nothing new for experienced correctional staff, some prisoners do follow through. 1996’s Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) restricts the types of legal remedy those inmates can seek, and because jurisdictions are more likely to take complaints of physical abuse seriously under the PLRA’s provisions, the UC Irvine Law Review asserts that cases of this nature are more likely to carry serious allegations and the potential for substantial awards or settlements. This, in turn, makes meticulous recordkeeping and evidence-based practices non-negotiable expectations for private and for-profit correctional facilities alike.

The common-sense approach: Why training and recordkeeping matter
When a corrections organization can provide legally defensible proof that it has trained every officer in its corps to state standards, it can more easily defend itself against accusations of physical abuse and other misbehavior. When an average of 27 inmates out of each thousand will litigate — a total of 59,000-plus new cases each year, if we apply that ratio to the total number of US inmates — the value of effective training and documentation is apparent on its face.

In case law, this principle is exemplified by cautionary tales of what can happen when appropriate training and recordkeeping are not carried out. Under the standard set in City of Canton, OH v. Harris, plaintiffs have a right of action for “failure-to-train” against correctional agencies and officials whenever such policies exhibit “deliberate indifference” towards inmates’ Constitutional rights. Thus, any training that is outdated or cannot be validated during litigation can be a significant source of liability.

Other cases illustrate how proper training in one state may be considered legally impermissible in another. In Lewis v. Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners, an inmate was awarded $500,000 after a jury decided the pressure point control tactics amounted to excessive force; similar tactics are baseline requirements in states like Colorado, where pressure point control is taught from the first days of a new hire’s training. At minimum, this shows the need for individual officers to provide proof of their training and certifications, if only to keep them protected from allegations of willfully disobeying policy.

Moreover, training and resultant documentation can spare a public or private corrections organization from financial losses even when an officer’s impropriety is uncontested. In Hall v. Robinson, the parents of an inmate at a juvenile correctional center sued Harris County (TX) after an officer at the facility engaged in an illegal sexual relationship with the minor, alleging a failure to train and supervise its officers. However, the county prevailed on summary judgment when its records proved that it had a zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual contact with inmates, that the officer had received and acknowledged that policy, and that the officer had been trained and certified to Texas Juvenile Justice Department standards.

Outliers further explain need for training and records
In other cases, documentation may save correctional organizations from legal woes brought on by employees. In Cole v. State of Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, the plaintiff sustained serious injuries when trainees were encouraged to beat each other with a baton during a roleplaying exercise. He was awarded $1.8 million for injuries, lost wages, and other outcomes caused by the exercise, suggesting that poor training can even compel trainers to make mistakes “worthy” of litigation.

More recently, the famous Jaycee Lee Dugard case emphasizes what human and financial costs a systemic breakdown of training can cause. Dugard, abducted in 1991 and held captive for 18 years, was awarded $20 million — a figure Assemblyman Jim Nielsen said could have gone “vastly beyond” the initial figure had it gone all the way to court. In this instance, the perpetrator—a convicted rapist—was able to continue holding Dugard captive despite the fact that he was on parole. Poor training practices were among the many charges levied at officials who failed to keep the assailant under closer watch, leading one to wonder how the outcome might have changed had more rigorous training protocols been in place.

These and other cases, which often focus on the effects of poor training in other areas of prison life, show the harsh impact a failure to train and document can have. For facilities, their employees, and their inmates, that makes training and proof thereof two of the most important things a correctional organization can implement.

Posted on Jan 31, 2018