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Fifth Circuit Says Private Prisons Liable Under Section 1983

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that private prison-management corporations and their employees may be sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

“Billy Rosborough is a prisoner of the Bradford State Jail, a Texas prison owned and operated by…Management and Training Corporation (MTC), a private prison-management corporation.”

Rosborough brought a § 1983 action against MTC and guard Chris Shirley, alleging that “Shirley maliciously slammed a door on Rosborough’s fingers, severing two fingertips” and that MTC failed to properly train and supervise Shirley.

“The district court sua sponte dismissed Rosborough’s action on the grounds that Shirley was an employee of MTC rather than…the State of Texas and, therefore, was not acting under color of state law for purposes of suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” The court “did not address MTC’s potential liability for failing to train Shirley.”

The Fifth Circuit reversed, observing that “[t]he Supreme Court…has held that ‘to act “under color” of law does not require that the accused by an officer of the state.’ Addickes v. S.H. Kness & Co., 398 U.S. 144,152…90 S. Ct. 1598 (1970)…Under the Supreme Court’s ‘public function’ test, a private entity acts under color of state law ‘when that entity performs a function which is traditionally the exclusive province of the state.’ Wong v. Stapling, 881 F. 2d 200,202 (5th Cir. 1989)...the Supreme COurt has suggested—though it has not actually held—that state prisoners might bring suit under § 1983 against privately owned correctional facilities. See: Corr. Servs. Corp. v. Malesko, 534 U.S. 61, 72 n.5,…122 S. Ct. 515 (2001)…Richardson v. McKnight, 521 U.S. 399, 413,…117 S. Ct. 2100 (1997)[.]”

The court noted that “[i]n Skelton v. Pri-Cor, Inc., [963 F. 2d 100, 102 (6th Cir. 1991)], the Sixth Circuit, relying on these Supreme Court precedents, held that a private company administering a state corrections facility could be sued under § 1983.” Additionally, some district courts within the Fifth Circuit had reached the same conclusion. See: Palm v. Marr, 174 F. Supp. 2d 484, 487-88 (N.D. Tex. 2001); Kesler v. King, 29 F. Supp. 2d 356, 370-71 (S.D. Tex. 1998).

Ultimately, the court agreed with these courts “that have found that private prison-management corporations and their employees may be sued under § 1983 by a prisoner who has suffered a constitutional injury.” See: Rosborough v. Management & Training Corp., 350 F. 3d 459 (5th Cir. 2003).

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Related legal case

Rosborough v. Management & Training Corp.