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Alaska High Court Reaffirms Negligence Standard to Protect Prisoners from Harm

Alaska High Court Reaffirms Negligence Standard to Protect Prisoners from Harm

by David Reutter

The Alaska Supreme Court, in a negligence suit filed by a former prisoner, reaffirmed its standard that a jailer has a duty to protect prisoners from all reasonably foreseeable harm. As to the merits of the case, the Court found the plaintiff presented evidence that, taken as a whole, raised a genuine issue of fact as to the foreseeability of the attack he suffered.

The decision stemmed from events that occurred while Richard A. Mattox was held at the Spring Creek Correctional Center in 2008. Mattox, who is white, was celled with an African-American prisoner identified only as “Aaron.”

Mattox contended that Aaron repeatedly made threats of a racial nature. “I don’t like you. Your people were killing my people back in the day,” Mattox said Aaron told him. “You’ve got to get out or something’s going to happen.” The threat was made every time they were in the cell together, leading Mattox to believe black prisoners wanted him out of the unit.

Mattox allegedly made multiple requests to two different guards to be moved from the unit, stating it was “too tough for [him]” and that he feared trouble from the “cocky, young” prisoners there. He submitted written transfer requests which were denied.

On July 22, 2008, Mattox was assaulted by prisoner Vincent Wilkerson, a friend of Aaron’s, while watching television in the common room. As a result he suffered bilateral orbital fractures, a sinus fracture, and a nasal fracture that required surgery to place six titanium plates and 200 titanium screws in his skull. There was no guard present in the common room at the time and the security cameras were inoperative. The superior court overseeing Mattox’s negligence suit granted summary judgment to the defendants, and Mattox appealed.

The Alaska Department of Corrections argued on appeal that guards were required to act only when a report of a threat communicates an “immediate, identifiable, and specific danger.” The Alaska Supreme Court rejected that proposed standard, which applies to 42 U.S.C § 1983 and Bivens action. Mattox raised a state-law negligence claim, which requires jailers to protect prisoners in their care from all reasonably foreseeable harm. The scope of that duty is determined by the factual circumstances, though the duty is not limitless because the prison “should not be the insurer of the prisoner’s safety.”

While the superior court had applied the correct standard, it erred in concluding that the attack was unforeseeable as a matter of law. The statements Mattox made to the guards provided evidence of a connection between the notice they had and the subsequent attack. They had more notice of the risk of an attack if they were aware that Aaron or his friends were the source of Mattox’s fear than if he had a generalized fear of staying in the unit.

The fact that a guard allegedly told Mattox, “There are racial tensions in here and you’re going to have to work it out,” suggested an official not only knew about the racial tensions but that Mattox would have to address the problem himself to avoid trouble.

As such, the Supreme Court held Mattox had raised a genuine issue of foreseeability. The superior court’s summary judgment order was therefore reversed. See: Mattox v. State of Alaska, Department of Corrections, 323 P.3d 23 (Alaska 2014).


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Related legal case

Mattox v. State of Alaska, Department of Corrections