Lambda Legal Defends Inmate's Right to Sue Government for Sexual Assault by Prison Officer

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December 10, 2012

Lambda Legal has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Kim Millbrook, a federal prison inmate who sued the government after claiming he was sexually assaulted by prison officers.

Susan Sommer, Lambda Legal’s Director of Constitutional Litigation, says:

A person's basic human rights aren't forfeited when they're incarcerated. Access to the courts is crucial to stem an epidemic of sexual assaults against inmates. Prison officers are not above the law. The U.S. government is responsible for making sure that federal prisons are safe and that inmates' rights are being protected.

Incarcerated members of the LGBT community and of other vulnerable groups are especially targeted for sexual assault. If prisons fail to protect vulnerable inmates, the inmates must have access to the courts.

Following a sexual assault by a prison staff member and threats against him, Millbrook was transferred in March 2010 from the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., to another facility in Lewisburg, Pa., according to court papers filed by him. He claims that after he told Lewisburg prison authorities of his history and need for protection, he was placed with violent cellmates who attacked him within days of his arrival.

Millbrook claims that an officer dragged him to an underground area outside the range of security cameras, where one officer held him in a choke-hold and another forced Millbrook to perform oral sex. The officers threatened to kill him if he told anyone of the assault, he says.

In January 2011, Millbrook sued the U.S. government in federal court. Both the District Court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Millbrook's suit was barred under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The law provides a path to sue the federal government if a federal law enforcement officer commits an assault or battery on the job.

In the brief filed last Friday, Lambda Legal argues that Millbrook's claim is valid that law and that the immunity waiver for law enforcement officers is in place to protect people from abuse of power. When Congress unanimously enacted the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, it recognized that inmates are being sexually assaulted by prison officers and other inmates at alarming rates, and that such abuse is sometimes used to threaten and control inmates. Because of this abuse of power, it is critical for inmates to have access to the courts to protect their rights.

Find out more about Lambda Legal’s work regarding government misconduct here.