Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Setting a Better Standard: Evaluating Jail Officials' Constitutional Duties in Preventing the Sexual Assault of Pretrial Detainees

Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Setting a Better Standard: Evaluating Jail Officials' Constitutional Duties in Preventing the Sexual Assault of Pretrial Detainees

Article excerpt

Walton v. Dawson, 752 F.3d 1109 (8th Cir. 2014).


According to a recent survey of American federal and state inmates, 4.5 percent of the nation's prisoners--roughly 60,500 people--reported experiencing sexual violence while in prison. (1) The Supreme Court has stressed that "[b]eing violently assaulted in prison is simply not 'part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society.'" (2) Congress responded to this ongoing problem by enacting the Prison Rape Elimination Act ("PREA") in 2003. (3) PREA established a zero-tolerance standard for prison sexual assault and mandated the United States Department of Justice to make the prevention of such assault a top priority in American prisons. (4)

Jail and prison officials have a duty to protect inmates under their supervision from being subject to violence at the hands of fellow inmates. (5) When employees of a jail do not adhere to the jailhouse policy of locking the cell doors each night and an inmate is sexually assaulted by another inmate as a result, a question arises as to who is culpable for the breach of safety. (6) However, just because a jailhouse policy has been violated does not mean the inmate has suffered a violation of his constitutional rights. (7) It is when the policy equates to a constitutional minimum, given the totality of the circumstances, that the court properly considers the breach of policy to amount to a constitutional deprivation. (8)

This Note examines Walton v. Dawson, a recent Eighth Circuit decision that considers whether jail officials should be held accountable when an inmate-on-inmate sexual assault occurs and the assault was directly facilitated by the failure of the officials' subordinates to follow the jailhouse policy of locking cell doors overnight. (9) Parts II and III introduce the facts and holding of Walton and the legal context within which an analysis of the instant case may be framed. Part IV synthesizes the court's rationale in the Walton decision with the established legal context. Finally, Part V discusses Walton's foreseeable impact on future deliberate indifference claims. This Note argues that the Eighth Circuit should adopt an objective standard when reviewing claims of deliberate indifference brought by pretrial detainees against jail officials.


The defendants in this case were Macon County Jail administrator David Moore and Macon County Sheriff Robert Dawson (hereinafter, collectively "Officials"). (10) These Officials were not the individuals actually responsible for locking the cell doors at the Macon County Jail on a nightly basis. (11) In fact, they were not even present at the jail on the night the plaintiff ("Walton") was sexually assaulted by his cellblock neighbor, Nathaniel Flennory ("Flennory"). (12) On interlocutory appeal, the Officials argued that the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, Northern Division, erred in denying both of them qualified immunity against Walton's failure to train claims. (13) Walton brought his claims against the Officials under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, which states in the pertinent part:

   Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance,
   regulation, custom, or usage, of any State ... subjects, or causes
   to be subjected, any citizen of the United States ... to the
   deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the
   Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an
   action at law.... (14)

Walton argued that the Officials violated his Fourteenth Amendment rights by failing to train jailer Ryszard Bilinski ("Bilinski") to properly lock the cell doors at night, thereby failing to provide Walton with physical protection from Flennory. (15) Walton asserted a Fourteenth Amendment violation rather than an Eighth Amendment violation (16) because the Eighth Amendment applies only to post-conviction prisoners, whereas Walton was a pretrial detainee at the time of the assault. …

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