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What Happens when Jails do not Provide Medical Care?

Lab Coat with ID
Lab Coat with ID

Reasonable and timely medical care for “serious medical needs” is a constitutional right for the incarcerated. When a health concern is not as serious or urgent though, then the obligation to provide timely and quality care is less guaranteed.

What is a Serious Medical Need?

Receiving care for “serious medical needs” is not just a nice idea, but a right protected by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Violating this right, either by failing to address serious medical concerns, or by”deliberate indifference,” can be considered cruel and unusual punishment for convicted inmates. It is unfortunately though very hard to prove that appropriate medical care was not indeed provided.

The definition of a “serious medical need” is what makes challenging the standard of care difficult. A serious medical need is broadly defined by:

  • Threat of death, extreme pain, degeneration etc.
  • A few mental health issues (such as those involving suicidal tendencies)
  • Withdrawal symptoms

However, the following are a few gray areas that may not clearly count as a “serious medical need,” depending on the circumstances.

  • Symptoms without an accompanying diagnosis
  • Conditions that are exacerbated over time by delays
  • Inadequate care standards being met
  • Interrupted medical care

Advocating for Basic Medical Needs

Standards for the quality and timeliness of healthcare inmates receive is not black and white. Instead, the definition is nuanced and leaves room for interpretation. This complexity has forced some inmates to pursue legal battles for essential healthcare services while incarcerated.

  • A recent example of a fight for higher quality care standards involves Hepatitis C.
    • This is a disease that is cured in 95% of cases that are treated in the general population.
    • Prompt treatment has direct benefits such as limiting liver damage and other complications.
    • Despite these clear benefits, it took a class action settlement in 2015 to get better standards of care guaranteed.
    • Inmates in Massachusetts rarely received treatment for Hepatitis C prior to this effort, often due to cost concerns.
  • Similarly, treatment for opioid and Substance Use Disorder (SUD) has not always been provided to inmates.
    • Many cases of preventable deaths have occurred when inmates detoxed during their first few days in-custody.
    • Clear evidence exists on the immediate health risks, and potential benefits of SUD treatment.
    • Legal efforts in 2018-2019 led to more of these services being routinely offered in jails.

These examples are chronic and long-term medical concerns, but many serious medical issues can start small. Without treatment, many medical needs can lead to long-term complications or injury. Even a toothache can become a crisis if left untreated or if care is delayed.

Missed Healthcare Opportunities

Research shows that rural jails, or jails with privately contracted healthcare services, have higher death rates. In-custody death rates are also higher pre-conviction. Suicide, illness, or effects from drugs and alcohol are the leading causes of these deaths, and many of these conditions are preventable if prompt treatment or medical care is provided.

Reasons for these gaps in care could be in part due to jails focusing their limited resources towards providing urgent care services. Staffing, resource and funding shortages frequently leave jails in this position of triaging the type of care that can be provided and which conditions are indeed serious.

Prioritizing these “serious medical needs” over other health needs for too long though can have lasting impacts both now and into the future.

If a loved one died or you suffered life-changing catastrophic injury in jail, consider reaching out to one of our experienced attorneys.

Written By: author image Allison Kunerth
author image Allison Kunerth
Allison Kunerth, Ph.D. earned her Ph.D. in Public Health Studies at Saint Louis University. She also earned a P.S.M. in Biology at Illinois Institute of Technology, and an M.S. in Biosecurity and and Disaster Preparedness at Saint Louis University. Doctor Kunerth earned a B.S. in General Science at University of Oregon. Doctor Kunerth has worked as a writer, data analyst, communicable disease planner, program analyst, and laboratory technician. She has served in the military since 2010, currently serving as a Medical Service Corps Officer, with the rank of Captain, in the United States Army Reserve. Doctor Kunerth has published extensively, being either the primary or contributing author to approximately fifteen journal publications. Doctor Kunerth has also been the primary or co-presenter for approximately fourteen poster presentations. She has worked with the Lane County Public Health Advisory Committee, International Society of Disease Surveillance, and Saint Louis Regional Radiological Response Medical Reserve Corps.