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Supreme Court Rules Qualified Immunity Shields Prison Officials from Suicide Claim

Supreme Court Rules Qualified Immunity Shields Prison Officials from Suicide Claim

by Derek Gilna

In what can only be considered a step backward for holding corrections officials accountable for the preventable suicide of prisoners in their custody, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the doctrine of qualified immunity shields officials from liability in a case involving a prisoner who killed himself. As a result, a federal lawsuit filed by the family of Christopher Barkes, who allegedly committed suicide due to an inadequate intake screening, was dismissed.

According to the Supreme Court, there was no question that Barkes was “a troubled man with a long history of mental health and substance abuse problems.” Following his arrest for probation violations in 2004, he was confined at the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Delaware, where an intake evaluation was performed that included a brief mental health screening. The nurse performing the screening, who was employed by a private contractor, used a form approved by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC). The form covered 17 suicide risk factors and required immediate suicide countermeasures if 8 or more factors were reported.

The nurse found only two indicators of suicidal tendencies, and thus failed to alert prison staff to the possibility of Barkes harming himself. Shortly after his arrival at the facility, Barkes called his wife and told her he was going to commit suicide; she did not notify anyone at the prison. The next day he hanged himself in his cell.

The lawsuit filed by Barkes’ family raised claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and alleged that the correctional institution and its employees had violated Barkes’ civil rights; the suit further alleged that prison officials were not following updated NCCHC suicide prevention standards, as the intake screening form they used had been developed in 1997. The defendants’ motions to dismiss were denied and a divided panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that in light of the many facts in dispute, summary judgment was inappropriate and qualified immunity did not protect the defendants from liability, as there was a clearly established right to “the proper implementation of adequate suicide prevention protocols.”

The Supreme Court granted cert and reversed on June 1, 2015, finding that qualified immunity applied in this case and the clearly established right relied upon by the Third Circuit did not exist: “To be clearly established, a right must be sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.” The Court continued, “When properly applied [qualified immunity] protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”

The Court was not persuaded that Third Circuit precedent had put the defendants on notice of a requirement for proper suicide screening protocols. “In short, even if the Institution’s suicide screening and prevention measures contained the shortcomings that respondents allege, no precedent on the books in November 2004 [when Barkes died] would have made clear to petitioners that they were overseeing a system that violated the Constitution. Because, at the very least, petitioners were not contravening clearly established law, they are entitled to qualified immunity.” Accordingly, the judgment of the Third Circuit was reversed. See: Taylor v. Barkes, 135 S.Ct. 2042 (2015).

Barkes’ family had also named the prison’s private medical contractor, First Correctional Medical, in their lawsuit. A default judgment had been entered against the company previously, and in March 2010 the district court awarded a total of $850,000 in damages. [See: PLN, Sept. 2010, p.32].


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Related legal case

Taylor v. Barkes