Can an Incarcerated Person Sue a Corrections Officer?

Can an Incarcerated Person Sue a Corrections Officer?

Yes. As a person in prison, you still have certain rights. Those rights include the right to access to courts. They also include the right to be free from violence. So, if you’re currently incarcerated and a corrections officer harms you, you have the right to turn to the courts and sue them. And prisons can’t stop you from doing so.

Can you sue a corrections officer while incarcerated?

You have the right to sue a prison official or corrections officer if they harm you. But the process isn’t simple, especially if the case involves federal officials. Such a lawsuit is generally referred to as a “Bivens” claim or action.

The name goes back to Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case. In that case, a man claimed that six federal agents violated his rights. He argued that they entered his home without probable cause.

When the man tried to sue the agents, he ran into a problem. No federal law let him sue federal officers for constitutional violations. But the Supreme Court allowed the lawsuit anyway.

Now, people file different types of Bivens actions all over the country. These are lawsuits that sue for damages if a federal or corrections officer violated someone’s constitutional rights.

What types of claims qualify for a Bivens action?

You can only file a Bivens claim if a federal officer violates your rights. You cannot file the same type of claim against a state officer. In that case, you would file a “1983 claim” based on federal law (42 U.S.C. § 1983).

Bivens action allows you to sue for “money damages.” This generally means you receive money for the harm against you. Potential claims for money damages might include the following:

  • Prison officials unreasonably search you or your cell.
  • Prison officials refuse to provide you necessary medical care.
  • Prison officials assault you.
  • Prison officials refuse to let you access courts or your lawyer.

These are not the only situations that might justify a Bivens claim. But they are some of the common examples.

inmate sues corrections officers image
 Image courtesy of Motortion via iStock Photos.

Who can you file a Bivens claim against?

You can file a Bivens claim against federal officials only. In the context of prison, this likely means against Bureau of Prison (BOP) employees and U.S. lawmakers.

You may also be able to file a lawsuit against federal agencies. Examples include Immigration and Customers Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Justice (DOJ). But special rules apply for those agencies as well.

How do you sue a corrections officer?

You do not need to file your suit in federal court. You can file a Bivens lawsuit in state court. But the corrections office you sue does have the right to move the case to federal court if they want.

To bring a Bivens claim, you must allege the following:

  • a specific constitutional right, 
  • that a federal official acting in their authority violated that right,
  • that you have no other options for legal action, and
  • that the court can impose a remedy, including in the form of damages.

Every court can have its own rules for the filing of Bivens lawsuits. But many provide templates that prisoners can work from. A federal court in New York, for example, provides this Bivens action form. The government requires the BOP to give you meaningful access to legal resources. Use these resources to help you prepare for your suit.

The Takeaway:

If a federal corrections officer violates your rights as an incarcerated person, you can sue them through a lawsuit. This usually means filing a Bivens claim against the officer.

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