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Prisoners Who Fear for Their Safety Must Give Details to Prison Officials, Seventh Circuit Decides

By Brandon Sample

Prisoners who feel that their safety is in danger must do more than make generalized assertions of potential harm, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit decided November 21, 2008, in affirming summary judgment for prison officials accused of failing to protect a prison snitch from assault.

Curtis Dale, a federal prisoner, sued several Bureau of Prisons officials after he was stabbed seven times at the United States Penitentiary (USP) in Terre Haute, Indiana. Other prisoners had long been suspicious of Dale. From 1998 to 2000, he was taken on writ six times to testify against other drug dealers. But each time he returned, Dale played down the reasons why he went on writ. Finally, on September 28, 2000, Parish Barnes, another prisoner at the USP, decided to take care of Dale, stabbing him while both were on the recreation yard.

Dale argued that his case manager and other members of his unit team acted with deliberate indifference to his safety because they were aware that other prisoners were “asking questions” about him and that he was being “pressured” and that it is common knowledge in a prison that snitches are especially vulnerable to assault. But Dale would never name names or give details. Dale wanted a transfer to the medium security facility in Pekin, Illinois and his case manager and other staff offered him protective custody instead. Dale refused protective custody, though, fearing that he would for sure be labeled as a snitch.

The district court granted summary judgment for the prison officials. Dale appealed and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

“Dale’s vague statements that inmates were ‘pressuring’ him and ‘asking questions’ were simply inadequate to alert the officers to the fact there was a true threat at play,” the court wrote.

Dale tried to get the court to find deliberate indifference based on the “inherent risks faced by snitches in prison.” But the court found Eighth Amendment liability “every time an inmate known to be cooperating with authorities is attacked” to be “quite a stretch.” Just because a correctional officer knows an inmate has been branded a snitch…does not mean that an officer violates the Constitution if the inmate gets attacked. Each case must be examined individually, with particular focus on what the officer knew and how he responded,” the court wrote.

In Dale’s case, the prison officials responded reasonably, the court concluded. Dale was offered protective custody. “It’s a shame he refused, but the defendants really can’t be blamed. And even if they can,” the court wrote, “they were negligent at most, the Eighth Amendment requires more than that.”

The judgment of the district court was accordingly affirmed.

See: Dale v. Poston, 548 F.3d 563 (7th cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

Dale v. Poston