Historically, Title 42 U.S.C. §1983 has provided a procedural mechanism for state and local prison inmates claiming violations of their civil rights to sue those acting “under color of law”. Qualified immunity, however, bars §1983 suits against certain state, local and federal officials unless the actor reasonably believes that his conduct violates a clearly established constitutional right. Certainly, claims suggesting deprivation of rights rooted in the Fourth Amendment, the Eighth Amendment and the 14th Amendment are ripe in the prison context. ...Hulvat clearly believes qualified immunity should extend to government contractors including private prisons and their employees, but that's a slippery slope she's suggesting the courts head down. The Geo Group is to TDCJ as the mercenary firm Blackwater was to the US Marines. There are good reasons why Blackwater retained liability when performing its functions and you couldn't set the precedent for one sort of entity without extending it to others. The government contracts for all sorts of services with the private sector: Should rental car firms enjoy qualified immunity because the government sometimes rents cars from them? Where would it end?
We need only look as far as the most recent Supreme Court opinion on the matter to quickly conclude that prison guards in private prisons are, for all practical purposes, exposed and vulnerable to liability for civil rights violations. The 1997 Supreme Court case of Richardson v. McKnight established that prison guards working for a private prison company that contracted with the state could not assert the defense of qualified immunity against civil rights allegations. There, two inmates in a privatized Tennessee prison alleged that prison guards subjected them to severe physical restraints, thereby depriving them a constitutionally protected right. The Court believed that “history does not reveal a ‘firmly rooted’ tradition of immunity applicable to privately employed prison guards”. Most notably, the Court found no reason to extend this critical protection to private contracted prison guards. The key factor in the Courts decision was that the person being accused of the constitutional deprivation was not hired directly by the government, rather “a private firm, systematically organized to assume a major lengthy administrative task (managing an institution) with limited direct supervision by the government, undertak[ing] that task for the profit and potentially in competition with other firms”.
In any event, Ms. Hurvat's complaint won't be satisfied anytime soon. She noted that a Supreme Court case in 2012 finding qualified immunity for an attorney hired to perform a police Internal Affairs investigation "was very careful not to overrule Richardson, finding that the employment relationship of a privately retained 'one' is quite different than the position and relationship of 'many' working for the entity hired by the government. For the time being, then, private prison guards facing civil rights allegations remain exposed and susceptible to liability."
Strip away that liability and abuses would surely rack up. Already, private facilities tend to be less accountable and more prone to abuse than publicly operated ones (though both have their problems). In part that's due to underpaid, under-trained staff, high turnover, fewer services and a tendency to cut corners to maximize their bottom line. How much worse would those problems be if private facilities weren't accountable in court for abuses? In that vein, via Texas Prison Bidness, this morning I noticed this new report (pdf) from the Detention Watch Network about alleged civil rights violations at private immigration detention facilities, including in Polk County, TX.
Government agencies are accountable to legislatures or other elected entities who can and do intervene - as happened at the Texas Youth Commission, for example - when serious problems arise. But private companies are only accountable to their board and shareholders. In Grits' view, SCOTUS was wise not to extend them immunity.