A Pennsylvania prisoner’s handwritten petition for the right to sue over abuse reaches the highest authority of the land, and it is deemed just.
Photo: Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images
Kim Millbrook was about four years into a 31-year sentence at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania when he says he was assaulted by three guards. On March 5, 2010, Millbrook claims he was taken to a prison basement—away from the view of video cameras—where he was forced to perform oral sex on a Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) correctional officer, while another officer held him in a choke hold and a third officer stood watch nearby.
Millbrook, a career criminal from Illinois in his mid-40s, was doing time for drug, firearms, witness tampering and witness retaliation charges. He claimed that the officers threatened to kill him if he did not comply with their demands and that he suffered physical injuries as a result of the assault. He tried to sue, from prison, for compensatory damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), but the district court threw out his case.
The inmate appealed to the federal Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, but that too was rejected. On Wednesday, March 27, Millbrook’s handwritten petition to the Supreme Court made a case that could not be denied.
The Supreme Court justices found that he had the right to sue under the FTCA.
The question at issue was whether or not the FTCA applied to abuses by federal law enforcement officers while engaged in duties other than investigative or law enforcement activity, executing a search, seizing evidence, or making an arrest.
“If the government knows it can be sued, and it’s going to cost it money if it lets this stuff go on, that’s a deterrent and that works to improve conditions for prisoners.”
Writing for all nine of his colleagues, Justice Clarence Thomas found “there is no basis for concluding that a law enforcement officer’s intentional tort must occur in the course of executing a search, seizing evidence, or making an arrest in order to subject the United States to liability.”
That determination could allow more prisoners’ lawsuits to go ahead, according to Marianne Sawicki, a volunteer attorney at the Lewisburg Prison Project, Inc., a nonprofit organization that assists prisoners in Central Pennsylvania.
“It means that prisoners can sue under the Federal Tort Claims Act in a broader range of circumstances than before,” Sawicki, who worked on the amicus brief her group filed to support Millbrook’s case, tells TakePart.
The other takeaway, she adds, is “never give up.”
“Even if 99.9 percent of the cases like yours don’t work, it’s still not hopeless,” she says. “You can petition the Supreme Court.”
Millbrook’s case could also help curb the abuse of inmates in federal prisons.
“If the government knows it can be sued, and it’s going to cost it money if it lets this stuff go on, that’s a deterrent and that works to improve conditions for prisoners,” Sawicki says.
Millbrook wrote out his court filings by hand and was without the help of an attorney until his case reached the Supreme Court. “The only way he was going to go to court was if he did it himself,” says Sawicki. “Which he did.”
Still, having won the right to his day in court, the prisoner-plaintiff faces an uphill battle in his lawsuit.
“Now that the law does cover him, he’s back to square one,” Sawicki says. “He’s going to be back in court.”
It might not be entirely back to square one, though. “I think he’ll have an easier time now getting an attorney,” Sawicki says. “It’s very heartwarming to say the least.”
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