Alaska Supreme Court says state has duty to protect inmates from one another

Lisa Demer

A former inmate in Alaska's only maximum security prison can go ahead with his claim that he warned correctional officers of trouble with "cocky, young" inmates in his prison block only to suffer serious injuries after another prisoner punched him.

In a decision released Friday, the Alaska Supreme Court said a lawsuit by the injured man, Richard Mattox, can go forward against the Department of Corrections. Bones in Mattox's face were shattered in the incident, the opinion said.

Alaska's prison system has a duty to protect the lives and health of inmates in its custody, the opinion, written by Chief Justice Dana Fabe, said.

"We have not previously considered whether assaults by other inmates fall within the scope of a jailer's duty to protect, but our precedents point in that direction, permitting liability even for intentional harmful acts, including assault by prison staff as well as suicide," the opinion says.

There is no reason inmate-on-inmate violence should be treated any differently, the justices said, pointing to prisoner assault cases from New York and Kansas.

State lawyers said they are disappointed and are evaluating options, including an appeal.

Mattox, who is white, asserted that he received threats of a racial nature from his then-cellmate, who is African-American, while both were incarcerated at Spring Creek Correctional Center.

In an interview, Mattox, now 54, said he's never had issues with others based on race and was just trying to serve his time and return to society. He was imprisoned after being convicted of felony drunken driving and driving with a revoked license, according to the Department of Corrections.

"Your people were killing my people back in the day," Mattox remembered his cellmate saying, according to the decision. "You've got to get out or something's going to happen."

Mattox says he made multiple requests to two different correctional officers to be transferred to a different module, telling them the mod was "too tough." He thought the violence could come from any of the black inmates, the decision said.

One officer told him "there are racial tensions in here and you're going to have to work it out," according to the opinion's summary of his case.

He also asserts he submitted written transfer requests, and that the documents are missing from his prison file, the opinion said.

On July 22, 2007, he was watching TV in a common area with other inmates. There was no guard in the area, and no working security cameras, according to the opinion. Another inmate, Vincent Wilkerson, who was a friend of the cellmate, told Mattox to "shut the f--- up."

Just as Mattox was asking a third inmate whether Wilkerson was talking to him, Wilkerson stood in front of him "and suddenly punched Mattox in the left cheek," the opinion said.

Mattox suffered fractures to his eye socket, a broken nose and a sinus fracture. He was hospitalized and underwent surgery that included the placement of six titanium plates and 200 screws in his skull. He says he still suffers from sinus and vision problems, the opinion said.

Wilkerson, now 45, was not charged in the incident, according to the Department of Corrections.

In 2009, Mattox sued, accusing the Department of Corrections of negligence. Palmer lawyer Ben Whipple brought the case.

In 2011, Palmer Superior Court Judge Vanessa White threw it out, reasoning that Mattox failed during pre-trial proceedings to show that the department "was placed on notice of a specific threat of harm" against him, the order said.

The department asserted that the inmates only have a claim if an injury is serious and "prison officials act with deliberate indifference to the inmate's safety." They would have to know of an "immediate, identifiable, and specific danger," the department contended, according to the opinion.

The Supreme Court says that's too high a bar.

"A jailer has a duty to protect prisoners in its care from all reasonably foreseeable harm," the justices said.

Mattox presented enough information to "raise a factual question as to the foreseeability of the attack he suffered," the opinion said.

Susan West, an assistant attorney general who handled the case, said in an email Friday that the state takes steps to protect inmates "but today's decision unrealistically broadens the scope of what should be considered reasonably foreseeable."

"An inmate's vague, generalized fear that he may be harmed by unidentified inmates is not the sort of specific threat that prison officials can meaningfully respond to," she wrote.

The Department of Corrections says it has improved procedures and data collection since the 2007 incident. Officers now are assigned to the inmate modules, and there are working cameras. The agency is better able to document issues and share information "across the system."

The department tracks inmate-on-inmate assaults but wasn't able to provide statistics on short notice Friday, officials said.

Mattox now is back in Kenai, where he has lived most of his life. He's on disability from an unrelated back injury.

He is seeking unspecified monetary damages. He said he also wants to ensure that dangers to inmates are addressed.

"We all have a price to pay for wrongs we have done but to me that is excessive punishment," Mattox said. "People are being hurt, and it's not right."

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