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Seventh Circuit Upholds Prison Guard’s Rape Convictions, But County Not Liable

by Scott Grammer

Darryl L. Christensen was a Polk County, Wisconsin jail guard who over the course of three years, between 2011 and 2014, repeatedly sexually assaulted two female prisoners. When this was discovered by jail administrators, Christensen resigned. He pleaded guilty to several counts of sexual assault and will get a taste of what it’s like to be on the other side of the bars for the next thirty years.

His victims, who are referred to only by their initials in the Seventh Circuit opinion, sued both Christensen and the county for violating their rights. They won in the district court $2,000,000 in compensatory and $3,750,000 in punitive damages per plaintiff. Christensen and the county both moved for new trials and appealed. On June 26, the Seventh Circuit affirmed Christensen’s conviction but reversed the damage award against the county.

As for Christensen, the Court found “no reason to disturb the jury’s verdict against Christensen and so affirm the denial of his request for a new trial. His assaults were predatory and knowingly criminal. But to impose liability against the county for Christensen’s crimes, there must be evidence of an offending county policy, culpability, and causation. These are demanding standards. Christensen’s acts were reprehensible, but the evidence shows no connection between the assaults and any county policy. We therefore reverse and remand for entry of judgment in favor of the county.”

The Court found that “against the county, plaintiffs made four principal allegations: (1) the jail’s sexual assault policies and training were inadequate; (2) the jail customarily tolerated sexually offensive comments by guards; (3) the investigation of a former guard revealed the jail’s sexual assault policy was inadequate and that the jail minimized sexual abuse; and (4) the jail failed to widely implement recommendations under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), 34 U.S.C. §§ 30301–09. The sum of these allegations, plaintiffs argued, prove the county was deliberately indifferent to a known risk of sexual assault by jail staff.”

For the next 30 or so pages, the majority, in the form of Judges Bauer and Brennan, carefully explained why it simply could not allow the county to be held responsible as the jury found that it was.

One of the three-judge panel, dissented, though. Judge Scudder said, “I agree with District Judge Conley that a reasonable jury could have found that Polk County acted with deliberate indifference to the need for more training and monitoring to prevent the sexual assault of female inmates by male guards and in doing so caused the injuries suffered by plaintiffs J.K.J. and M.J.J.”

Judge Scudder went on to explain: “What worries me about today’s decision is that, as a very practical matter, municipalities may conclude that there is not much to be done to stop a rogue guard from engaging in secretive and heinous conduct in violation of a bright-line policy prohibiting sexual contact with inmates. That view would be as mistaken as it is dangerous, for cities and counties have a meaningful responsibility and role to play in preventing the sexual abuse of inmates in their custody by the guards they employ. That promise comes from the Eighth Amendment. While not every incident of abuse will be preventable, a jail’s decision makers are not free to choose—through their deliberate decisions on enforcement and training related to the jail’s policies—to leave unaddressed a known and material risk of sexual assault to inmates under the jail’s care.” See: J.K.J and M.J.J. v. Polk County, 928 F.3d 576 (7th Cir. 2019). 

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Related legal case

J.K.J and M.J.J. v. Polk County