Staff Training and Prisoner Litigation

by Gary W. DeLand

Editor’s Note: This article discusses constitutional issues associated with training.

In 1971, after nearly a decade as a deputy sheriff working mostly as a plain-clothes investigator, I found myself assigned to a completely alien environment—the Salt Lake County Jail.  Other than dropping prisoners off after I had arrested them, my experience in, and knowledge of, the jail was virtually nonexistent.  I took over my new responsibilities with an awareness that I was managing jail officers who knew much more about their jobs and the jail function than I did.

My total training for this new assignment was being handed a ring of keys and given a tour of the jail by one of my subordinates.  There was no state-offered, pre-service training program; no formal in-house jail training, and no written policies and procedures to provide guidance to me or any of the other staff members.  No one could tell me with any degree of certainty the laws governing prisoners’ mail, visitors, access to religion, and other First Amendment rights.  Nor was anyone able to tell me anything helpful about the policies, procedures, or legal requirements for searches, use of force, discipline, classification, or life-safety issues.  No one offered any useful information regarding minimum requirements for prisoners’ conditions of confinement or our responsibilities and duty to protect prisoners from each other; medical or mental health problems; or self-inflicted harm.

Pre-service Corrections Training

By asking questions and making observations, I learned how prisoners were received in the jail, how they were supervised, how locking systems functioned, how the control room operated, and how prisoners were secured in their cells.  However, it would be weeks before I developed a reasonable working knowledge of the jail operation.  As a result, I recognized the need for training and began developing an in-house training program to cover the most basic topics (e.g. prisoner discipline, searches, use of force, supervising prisoners).  A couple of years later, with the aid of Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training and a few federal training dollars, I helped start and operate a jail officer training program at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah.  That program trained jail officers from all counties that wished to have their jail officers trained; however, at that time there was no state jail training requirement.

More than a decade later, as executive director of the Utah State Department of Corrections, I was able to build the first comprehensive pre-service corrections academy in Utah.  It is now required that candidates for corrections officer positions must graduate from the pre-service academy before they are eligible to work in the state’s jails, prisons, or private corrections facilities.

In the many years since I started my first corrections assignment, the amount, quality, nature, and value of training in U.S. jails and prisons has improved dramatically.  Over that time, I have been privileged to witness corrections’ fledgling training efforts advance from simple, content-limited, and often parochial curricula to comprehensive, well-designed programs featuring written course objectives and lesson outlines, testing, certified instructors, and utilization of multiple training methods.  Training has advanced from simply training staff on how to do a few basic tasks to a curriculum including corrections-related law, behavioral topics, ethics, interaction with and management of prisoners, codes of conduct, and many other topics essential to the humane and constitutional incarceration of convicted and accused persons in the highly litigious corrections environment.

Despite the laudable advances in corrections training, plaintiffs’ attorneys routinely add claims to suits against corrections officials alleging that the training provided to corrections officers in a given case was inadequate.  They then assert that these inadequacies were the proximate cause of the constitutional harms allegedly suffered by the prisoner plaintiffs.  It is rare that the claims made by plaintiffs are based on even the most rudimentary evaluation of the defendant’s training program.  Often, the claims essentially amount to little more than a conclusion that since something went wrong, staff members must have been untrained or inadequately trained.  In other instances, plaintiffs’ experts may have actually reviewed the formal training offered.  However, even when there has been a review of the training and the reviewer has determined the training was inadequate, such evaluations tend to be cursory and the subsequent opinions very subjective.

Liability for Training Inadequacies Only If Deliberate Indifference Shown

Not every harm that befalls a prisoner states a constitutional cause of action.  According to the Supreme Court, “It is obduracy and wantonness, not inadvertence or error in good faith that creates the constitutional violation.” (Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 299 (1991), quoting, Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319 (1986).) Regarding training-related liability, the Supreme Court ruled that officials “can be found liable under Section 1983 only where the [jail or prison entity] itself causes the constitutional violation at issue. Responded superior or vicarious liability will not attach under Section 1983.” (City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 385 (1989), citing, Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978).)  “It is only when the ‘execution of the government’s policy or custom . . . inflicts the injury’ that the municipality may be held liable under Section 1983.” (Springfield v. Kibbe, 480 U.S. 257, 267 (1987)(O’Connor, J., dissenting).)

“[L]iability under Section 1983 attaches where—and only where—a deliberate choice to follow a course of action is made from among various alternatives by . . . policymakers.”

(Harris, supra, at 389, quoting, Pembaur v. Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 483-84 (1986)(plurality).

In setting the bar for evaluating whether training is constitutionally adequate, the Supreme Court has provided plain guidance.  The standard for culpability is the existence of a policy of deliberate indifference to essential training needs.

  • “[T]he inadequacy of police training may serve as the basis for Section 1983 liability only where the failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the police come into contact.” (Harris, supra, at 388.)
  • Only where agency policies are the moving force behind the constitutional violation and where the failure to train corrections officers in a relevant respect evidences a deliberate indifference to the rights of prisoners, can such a shortcoming be properly thought of as a “policy or custom” that is actionable under Section 1983. (Id. at 389.)
  • “Only where a failure to train reflects a `deliberate’ or ‘conscious’ choice by [corrections officials]—a ‘policy’ as defined by our prior cases—can a city [or county or corrections officials] be liable for such a failure under Section 1983.” (Id. at 389.)
  • “The issue . . . is whether that training program is adequate; and if it is not,the question becomes whether such inadequate training can justifiably be said to represent `[the agency’s] policy.'” (Id. at 390.)

No training program has ever been developed that cannot be labeled or criticized as “inadequate,” “flawed,” or “unconstitutional” by individual critics; however, it takes more than a conclusory pronouncement by a plaintiff or his attorney or retained expert to establish that the training amounts to a policy of deliberate indifference.  On the other hand, if corrections officials choose a policy of ignoring training which is obviously necessary to protect the rights and safety of prisoners and if that inadequate training can be shown to have caused the requisite level of harm to a prisoner, the responsible officials may be vulnerable to claims of deliberate indifference.

Creating Adequate Staff Training

An adequate training program ensures that staff have a working knowledge of their duties, responsibilities, and authority—particularly those duties which relate to the safety and constitutional rights of prisoners.  Misconduct or error by a staff member does not determine whether officers have been adequately trained.  No system can be perfect; however, with a moderate effort, officials can meet essential training requirements.  Officials can enhance the strength of their training to withstand deliberate indifference claims by tailoring training to the specific tasks and responsibilities of various posts,positions,and persons.  Officials should assign staff members to training which is relevant to their specific duties and responsibilities.  This, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to training, will reasonably ensure a successful defense.  Requiring officers to attend training which is not related to their actual responsibilities may not invalidate the training program (especially if they also receive the training critical to properly working assigned posts), but it may waste both training resources and staff time.  Of course, since the time available to training officers is finite, irrelevant training may in some cases result in inadequate time and resources to provide staff with critical training needs.

Consider Each Post’s Minimal Training Requirements.

To decrease officials’vulnerability to claims of deliberate indifference, wise administrators will consider the minimal training requirements of each post or category of posts in developing a plan or strategy for training officers.  Is a formal training plan absolutely necessary to provide deliberate indifference-proof training?  Of course not; however, a haphazard training approach is less likely to produce an adequate training outcome for staff.  The more thought and planning that officials put into the delivery of training, the more likely that the program will be bulletproof.  The Supreme Court addressed the usefulness of customizing or adapting training to the different functions and responsibilities of the officers being trained,suggesting that it could happen that:

In light of the duties assigned to specific officers or employees the need for more or different training is so obvious, and the inadequacy so likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights, that the policymakers . . . can reasonably be said to have been deliberately indifferent to the need. (Harris, supra, at 390.)<

Inexact Science.

Training should provide direction, instruction, and skills to staff members to help them to understand and implement their duties and responsibilities and to be cognizant of the need to protect the rights and safety of prisoners.  Training is not, however, an exact science which comes with a guarantee of flawless content and presentation.  Even the most outstanding training programs will vary in the value they provide to individual staff members depending on the attention, capabilities, and understanding of those members.  It is also important to realize that even the best trained and directed corrections staff members may make mistakes or otherwise fail to execute their duties exactly as required.  From one jurisdiction to another,training programs may vary in content, duration, quality, and effectiveness.  While different training officials may have different philosophies and methods for conducting training and developing needed skills, there is no best way to conduct training.  So long as training provides instruction in those areas that the officials know to a moral certainty will be needed by corrections officers to protect the rights and safety of prisoners and to impart clearly established legal requirements, the training should be well above any level that could establish deliberate indifference. (Harris, supra, at 390, n.10.)

Training Cannot Guarantee Perfect Outcomes

The mere fact that an official has a training policy does not mean that if some level of inadequacy is found in some aspect of the training, that the flaw proves the official has a policy of indifference to the rights of prisoners.  The training of jail officers is full of variables which can influence training outcomes.  While for each course or topic there may be formal objectives, lesson plans, and testing to reasonably ensure that the training is consistent from one class to another, the focus and content of the training will vary to some degree based on the training skills and emphases of different instructors.  Training is, of course, delivered by human beings to other human beings who bring to the training exercise substantially disparate correctional experience, cognitive skills, backgrounds, cultural values, attitudes, and learning abilities.  As a result, the content of the training will be received and understood differently by individual officers and consequently may be implemented or executed in moderately different ways; especially in situations which require application of policies and procedures to ambiguous or unclear problems.

Over the last 40 years, I have trained participants from virtually every state.  I have also designed or helped to design training programs in many different states,including providing technical assistance in developing state-level pre- and in-service training programs.  This participation on a national level has provided a unique opportunity to understand both the capabilities and limitations of training.  I have found a wide range of quality and sophistication in the development and presentation of training programs among the nation’s jails and prisons.  Also, I have observed that persons sitting in the same training class will not all derive the same benefit from the training they receive.  Depending on an individual trainee’s motivation, cognitive skills, and other factors, some will fare better than others in the training.  This can be observed in the post-training test scores achieved by officers and by their performance in the workplace after they have completed pre-service training requirements.

This reality is not lost on the Supreme Court.  In City of Canton v. Harris, the Court held:
In resolving the issue of … liability, the focus must be on adequacy of the training program in relation to the tasks the particular officers must perform.  That a particular officer may be unsatisfactorily trained will not alone suffice to fasten liability . . . for the officer’s shortcomings may have resulted from factors other than a faulty training program.  It may be, for example,that an otherwise sound program has occasionally been negligently administered.  Neither will it suffice to prove that an injury or accident could have been avoided if an officer had had better or more training, sufficient to equip him to avoid the particular injury causing conduct.

If the officer performed in a reasonable and proper manner, then improper training does not invalidate the correct handling of the incident, and a prisoner/ plaintiff should not be able to prevail on the inadequate training issue.

Such a claim could be made about almost any encounter resulting in injury, yet not condemn the adequacy of the program to enable officers to respond properly to the usual and recurring situations with which they must deal.  And plainly, adequately trained officers occasionally make mistakes; the fact that they do says little about the training program or the legal basis for [establishing liability]. (Harris, supra, at 390-91.)

Connection Between Training Flaws and Claimed Injuries Is Necessary

Even a less than adequate training program does not establish liability if there is no nexus between the training flaws and the injuries suffered by the prisoner.  As the Supreme Court has ruled, “for liability to attach … the identified deficiency in a training program must be closely related to the ultimate injury.”  Thus the “respondent must still prove that the deficiency in training actually caused the police officers’ indifference to her medical needs.” (Harris, supra, at 391.)  If, for example, an officer not properly trained in the formal procedures for handling a prisoner’s serious medical need nonetheless properly summons medical assistance in a timely manner and otherwise handles the matter in a manner consistent with proper protocol and if the prisoner ultimately suffers harm in the incident,it could not be said that it was the officer’s lack of training that caused the harm.  The officer may have only known the correct procedure by watching or talking with other staff members.  That should not matter.  What matters is the officer performed in a reasonable and proper manner.  That he did so despite being improperly trained does not invalidate the correct handling of the incident, and a prisoner/ plaintiff should not be able to prevail on the inadequate training issue.  In my role as an expert witness and litigation consultant, I have seen many instances of staff members performing their duties and responsibilities satisfactorily despite inadequate formal training.

Adequate Training Does Not Guarantee Staff’s Proper Actions

Plaintiffs’ attorneys will generally insert a claim of inadequate training of staff, often before they have even looked at the training program.  The basic thrust of the plaintiff’s assertions is usually that but for training deficiencies, staff would not have trampled the prisoner’s constitutional rights or otherwise caused him harm.  The Supreme Court has considered the issue of whether training ensures that an officer will exercise perfect judgement and will always act appropriately.  The Supreme Court asks whether such injuries would have been avoided had the corrections officer been trained under a program that was not deficient.  The Court then answers its own question.

Predicting how a hypothetically well-trained officer would have acted under the circumstances may not be an easy task for the factfinder, particularly since matters of judgment may be involved, and since officers who are well-trained are not free from error and perhaps might react very much like the untrained officer in similar circumstances. (Harris, supra, at 391.)

Certainly training has the potential of improving the capabilities, expertise, and competence of corrections staff.  Just how much that will happen will vary with each individual.  I am a very strong proponent of comprehensive staff training, but I also understand that training is not some magic salve that if rubbed on staff members will render them impervious to error, misjudgment, or misconduct.  Training is important in preparing officers to adequately perform their duties.  That does not mean that officers cannot learn through other means those things which were inadequately covered or even omitted from formal training.  It is, without a doubt, very important to provide adequate training.  Officials should also be aware that flaws which exist in a training program are not an automatic death sentence in defending litigation which alleges harm resulting from training flaws.

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