Prisons in the United States can be violent places. Sometimes, it's not the inmates who are violent; sometimes, it’s the guards. In San Francisco, an inmate's survivors recently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the City and County of San Francisco claiming that sheriff's deputies violated his civil rights by using excessive force.

Death of an Inmate

Thirty-one year old Issiah Downes died on September 7, 2009 inside his jail cell. The medical examiner concluded Downes died at the hands of prison guards. The examiner said Downes suffocated during his struggle with the deputies. The death was ruled a homicide. The ruling is a medical conclusion, not a legal criminal one.

Prisoners' Rights: Criminal Laws

In the United States and other civilized countries, we treat even those who've committed crimes with a measure of humanity. The Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment reflects this principle. Additionally, one of the goals of the criminal justice system is rehabilitation. For these reasons, prison officials can be punished for crimes against inmates.

Some states have criminal laws applicable only to mistreatment of inmates by prison officials. For example, under Arizona law a public officer may be fined and jailed up to six months for willful inhumanity or oppression toward a prisoner.

In all states the general criminal laws also apply to correctional officers. So a prison guard can be prosecuted for assault and battery or homicide.

Did Guards Use Excessive Force?

As a matter of federal law prison officials may not use unreasonable or excessive force against inmates in maintaining order and discipline. This standard isn't new and is well understood. Prison officials may use force as needed to maintain discipline. They must act in good faith. They can't use force maliciously and sadistically in order to cause harm. The difficulty lies in determining whether what happens in any given incident amounts to unreasonable or excessive force.

Downes was over six feet tall and more than 300 pounds. He'd become agitated and uncooperative as guards attempted to move him to an isolation cell. Although witness accounts vary, guards subdued him twice, once allegedly with their bodies and knees. Downes was heard to complain that he couldn't breathe. At some point he stopped breathing and died.

Before he did, witnesses said they heard him murmuring and moaning inside the cell for some time. Officers were present, yet they did not summon a nurse until after Downes stopped breathing. She stated previously that she became concerned that Downes was moaning so long, but she did not intervene until called by the officers.

The San Francisco District Attorney’s office is still investigating Downes' death. It’s unknown if the deputies will be charged with murder, manslaughter, or no crime at all.

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