Landmark case guarantees prisoners the right to medical care

Landmark case guarantees prisoners the right to medical careIn the late 1960s and 1970s, a series of federal lawsuits filed by prisoners alleging violations of their 8th Amendment right to protection from cruel and unusual punishment highlighted the appalling state of prison healthcare across the country. Allegations included the use of unlicensed, untrained prisoners to diagnose, treat and prescribe medications; correctional officers regularly preventing prisoners from attending sick call; and lack of mental health care despite a large population of prisoners with mental illness. Perhaps the most horrific of conditions was revealed in a 67-page report released by then-Governor of Arkansas Winthrop Rockefeller in 1967. The medical care program at the Tucker Prison Farm within the Arkansas prison system was operated by a prisoner with no medical or nursing training who ran an illegal drug program, sold medical leaves of absence, and tortured other prisoners using electric generators. Similar conditions were found in prison systems in other states, including Alabama, Texas, New York and Pennsylvania.Historically, the judiciary has been reluctant to intervene in cases alleging unconstitutional prison conditions, choosing to defer such matters to the expertise of prison administrators. In many cases, the court would acknowledge that prison health care was less than adequate but stopped short of characterizing such care as cruel and unusual punishment.

In the late 1960s, the courts’ approach to these cases began to change and the prisoner’s constitutional right to adequate health care began to develop.  In the landmark case of Estelle v. Gamble, the Supreme Court held all prisoners have the right to adequate medical care while incarcerated, and evidence of state prison officials’ “deliberate indifference” to a prisoner’s serious medical needs constitutes a violation of the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the 8th Amendment.

Since then, other court rulings have established prisoners have a right to reasonably adequate health care, meaning “services at a level reasonably commensurate with modern medical science and of a quality acceptable within prudent professional standards.” (United States v. DeCologero, 821 F.2d 39, 43.)

Court opinions alone are unable to provide an adequate standard of care that will be appropriate for all prisoners in all correctional facilities. The American Medical Association developed a set of standards for health care provided to prisoners of jails, prisons and juvenile detention facilities during the 1970s, which were later adopted by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC). These standards include health care services and support, and prisoner care and treatment. Correctional facilities may seek voluntary NCCHC accreditation, which involves a review of the facility’s conditions by external clinical professionals to determine whether they meet NCCHC standards. The American Correctional Association (ACA) provides similar guidelines and an opportunity for voluntary accreditation and compliance monitoring.

Corizon works with the NCCHC and the ACA, and we are the only correctional healthcare company to be certified with the National Patient Safety Foundation. It is our goal to provide quality care to our patients. We assist our clients in seeking accreditation from such organizations for the health care program at each facility, should that be a goal of the client. To date, all clients seeking accreditation have been successful; approximately two-thirds of Corizon’s client base. This fact is a testimony to the high level of care provided by Corizon at each site.

- Contributed by Scott King  | Chief Legal Officer

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