Supreme Court Grants Prison Officials Qualified Immunity in Inmate Suicide Case

Taylor v. Barkes could have been a significant qualified immunity case. Prison officials asked the Supreme Court to resolve a circuit split over whether supervisors can be liable for constitutional violations caused by their failure to supervise. The Court “expess[ed] no view” on the vitality of supervisory liability instead concluding no clearly established constitutional right was implicated in this case.  

In a per curiam (unauthored) opinion the Court granted two prison officials qualified immunity related to an inmate’s suicide reasoning that no precedent at the time of the suicide established that an incarcerated person had a right to proper implementation of adequate suicide prevention protocols. So prison officials could not be liable for failing to supervise the contractor providing suicide screening.

A contract nurse performed a suicide screening of Christopher Barkes when he was taken to prison after violating probation. Only two risk factors were apparent so the nurse did not initiate special suicide prevention measures. Barkes committed suicide the next morning. Barkes’s family sued the Commissioner of Corrections and the warden claiming they violated his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by failing to supervise the nurse who performed the suicide screening.

State and local government officials can be sued for money damages in their individual capacity if they violate a person’s constitutional rights. Qualified immunity protects government officials from such lawsuits where the law they violated isn’t “clearly established.”

The Third Circuit concluded that the right to proper implementation of suicide prevention protocol is clearly established. It refused to grant the officials qualified immunity because the nurse may not have been adequately supervised as she was using an out-of-date screening form, wasn’t qualified under current standards to conduct the screening, and didn’t have access to Barkes’s probation records which would have shed light on his mental health history.     

The Supreme Court granted the officials qualified immunity noting that no Supreme Court precedent even discusses, much less grants, inmates a right to proper implementation of adequate suicide prevention protocols. Precedent from other federal circuits suggested that no such right existed at the time. While Third Circuit precedent stated that if prison officials know an inmate is vulnerable to suicide they may not act with reckless indifference, it did not state that prisons must implement particular procedures to identify vulnerable inmates.