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What to Do If Denied Medication In Jail

denied medication in jail

Have you or a loved one been denied medication in jail? In that case, you might have a valid case against the jail or any other responsible party. Read on to learn more about your legal rights and options.

When a loved one is sent to jail, their well-being becomes a significant concern, especially when it comes to access to medical care. It’s deeply troubling to learn that a family member or friend in jail isn’t receiving the medication they need. This article provides clear guidance on what rights prisoners have to healthcare and what they can do if these rights are not being met.

Do Prisoners Have a Right to Healthcare?

Yes. Inmates are entitled to essential medical care. This right is protected under the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. 

Withholding necessary medical care, including being denied medication in jail, is interpreted as cruel and unusual, which is why jails are legally bound to ensure that prisoners receive the medical attention they need. This duty happens because inmates are unable to seek treatment on their own. 

They rely completely on the correctional facilities that keep them locked in. Specifically, displaying deliberate indifference to an inmate’s serious need for medical attention constitutes a breach of the Eighth Amendment.

The statistics on mortality in State and Federal prisons show an alarming trend. In 2018, almost 400 Federal prisoners died while around 4,000 died in State prisons. Cancer and heart disease were the leading causes of death but there were also cases of drug overdose, alcohol intoxication, and suicide. 

In line with the Eighth Amendment, most States have enacted laws that reinforce the right of prisoners to adequate medical care. However, there is no uniform standard for inmate medical care in the country. This leads to situations where jails and prisons fail to meet their legal obligations to inmates. 

Can You Sue a Jail for Not Giving Medication?

Yes. Prisoners have the right to adequate medical access. Failure to deliver adequate care on the part of the responsible party gives the prisoner, or those acting on their behalf, the right to sue the jail. 

To sue, you need to prove that the prison was deliberately indifferent to serious medical needs. This involves showing that the prison was aware of a substantial risk to your loved one’s health and chose to ignore it. 

There have been instances when prisoners sued correctional facilities and won based on inadequate health care. Just recently, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the state of Delaware, alleging “deliberate indifference” to the medical needs of prisoners. This lawsuit includes multiple serious accusations of neglect and mistreatment within Delaware’s prison healthcare system.

Examples of Inadequate Medical Care In Jail or Prison

Inadequate medical care goes beyond simply denying medication to patients. In a correctional facility, inadequate medical care is not only limited to being denied medication in jail. Here are examples of different scenarios:

Understaffing and Delayed Care

One of the most significant problems in prison healthcare is understaffing. When there aren’t enough medical professionals to attend to the needs of inmates, the result is often a delay in care. 

This delay can range from waiting longer for routine check-ups to life-threatening delays in addressing serious medical conditions. In some cases, these delays can exacerbate existing health issues, leading to more severe health problems that could have been prevented.

Neglecting Serious Medical Conditions

Inmates suffering from chronic illnesses, mental health issues, or requiring specialized treatment often find themselves in an ill-equipped system. Neglect in prison can result in the progression of diseases, untreated pain, and suffering, and in the worst cases, premature death. 

Cancer is a common health problem that goes untreated in prison, even after being diagnosed. A notable example is the case of John Kleutsch who died of an abdominal wound. Instead of proper treatment, the staff at the Monroe Correctional Complex gave him Tylenol which wasn’t enough. His wife filed a lawsuit with the Washington State Department of Corrections agreeing to a settlement of $3.25 million. 

Systemic Wrongdoing

Inadequate healthcare in prison is not just a series of isolated incidents; it’s often indicative of systemic wrongdoing, This encompasses a range of issues, from the mismanagement of healthcare resources to policies that prioritize cost-saving over patient care. 

In some instances, private healthcare providers contracted to offer medical services in prisons may cut corners to reduce expenses, severely impacting the quality of care provided. You can find these when prisons deliberately keep the number of staff low to reduce overhead costs.

Failure to Provide Prescription Drugs

In some cases, prisons may not have sufficient stock of essential prescription medications. This shortage can result in inmates being unable to access the drugs they need to manage chronic conditions or treat acute illnesses. 

Even when medications are available, the administration process may be inconsistent or haphazard. Inmates may receive their prescribed drugs irregularly, at incorrect dosages, or with improper monitoring. 

All of these can compromise the health of the prisoner-patient. Inmates with mental health conditions often require specific medications can lead to worsened mental health, and increased risk of self-harm, and exacerbation of their conditions.

Who Is Responsible for Providing Adequate Medical Care in Prison?

The responsibility for inmate healthcare lies with the government agency running the prison. Whether it’s a State or Federal facility, they must ensure your loved one’s needs are met. 

Sometimes, prisons contract out these services to “privatized prisons”. In these cases, the obligation to provide medical care relies on the contractual agreement between the government agency and the private prison.

Note though that the government agency and the privatized prison can shift the blame against each other. If the government hires private companies for medical services, then the government can state that all medical care has been left in the hands of the private company. 

On the other hand, the company might also argue that the government provides inadequate payment or funds to keep the facility going. In some rare instances, companies may blame the actual doctor or nurse serving the facility. They may argue that the medical professionals themselves have been negligent and those actions do not involve or bind the company.

This is why the input of a lawyer is critical. Other than finding evidence and expert witnesses, a lawyer understands the complexity of finding the right person to file against based on the evidence. 

Technical rules can lead to the dismissal of a case if the court finds that the defendant is the wrong party to be involved. The combination of experts helps show whether the actions or inactions may be attributed to a particular party.

Why Are Inmates Denied Medical Care?

It’s heartbreaking to know that medical care in prisons can be inadequate. Various factors, such as staff shortages or lack of proper training, may contribute to this inadequacy. 

Extending medical care to prisoners also increases the institution’s overall expenses, effectively decreasing their income. Therefore, some private institutions have a financial motivation to limit the extent of medical care given to prisoners. Whatever the reason, it is important to recognize that denying necessary medical care is not just a failure of the system; it’s a failure to respect basic human rights.

Note that to file a lawsuit on this basis, the denial of medical care should be deliberate. Therefore, it’s important to establish that the prison knew the existence of the health problem and decided not to treat it or if treated, the treatment must have been inadequate. 

This can be proven by showing that the facility had the resources but withheld them, or if they didn’t have the resources, they were in the position or capable of obtaining them.

When Are Jails Exempt from Denying Medical Care?

Of course, there are situations when jails may not be held accountable for not providing medical care. For instance, if the inmate refuses treatment or a medical issue is undiagnosed and not critical. 

It’s also possible that the inmate posses a significant safety risk for the administration of the treatment. However, these situations are exceptions and do not excuse a general disregard for an inmate’s health needs.

Jails may also be exempt depending on the actual status of the individual in the facility. This is because there’s a difference between a person who has been convicted by the courts and a person who is in jail but still awaiting trial. While the United States Supreme Court clarified that both inmates and detainees are entitled to medical care, the specifics of the responsibility are dependent on each State.

For example, some States have enacted laws outlining how the federal government and the local governments will pay for medical care for inmates. Depending on the availability of resources, the arrested person may shoulder their medical costs. 

This responsibility can also fall with the social and health services if it meets certain criteria. In some cases, the government agency that initiated the charges becomes responsible.

Statute of Limitations in Lawsuits Against Jails or Prisons 

If your loved one dies while in prison, the lawsuit can be categorized as wrongful death. In these cases, wrongful death is covered by your State’s statute of limitations. 

This is the length of time that you can file a case against the opposing party. If the statute of limitation runs out, the action essentially “expires” and you lose your right to file an action. This is why it’s important to file a case as soon as you find enough grounds to support your action.

These limitation periods vary from State to State, ranging from one to three years. The date to start counting is also different in each jurisdiction. For example, the state of Texas follows the Discovery Rule which says that the statute of limitations starts to run from the moment the filing party discovers the cause of death or should have reasonably discovered it. However, some States begin the limitation period from the date of death.

If you find that you’ve run out of time within the statute of limitations, you may have the option of tolling. This delays or suspends the statute but also depends heavily on State law. 

A classic example of tolling happens when a child is involved. If the filing party is a minor at the time of the death of the prisoner, they cannot file the case yet (because of being a minor).

For this reason, the statute of limitations clock “pauses” until the child turns 18. From there, the statute of limitations clocks start to run. Other than this, there may also be special circumstances that warrant legal action even if the statute of limitations has expired. 

How Do I Prove I Was Denied Medication In Jail or Prison?

To show that a prison denied medical care, it’s important to find out if they ignored serious health issues. This could mean failure to:

  • care for a condition causing a lot of pain to you or your loved one in prison;
  • treat an injury properly;
  • give needed medication; or 
  • any other circumstances discussed earlier in this article. 

An experienced lawyer can help with these cases by researching proof that the prison knew about the health issues but chose to ignore it. 

Sometimes, private companies hired to provide  healthcare to inmates can be held responsible too. The lawyer may use an expert witness to explain whether the prison’s actions were right or wrong. They’ll also check for all the harm caused by the denial of care, like health problems or emotional stress.

Sources of evidence to prove your lawsuit generally depend on the statements of other prisoners who witnessed the event, logbooks, medical reports, and the assessment of a doctor. The prisoner-patient can make statements as evidence if they initiated the case. 

However, if you’re filing on behalf of a loved one who passed away or who couldn’t do it for themselves then gathering evidence may be more challenging Most prisons are usually reluctant to provide information since it would put them at a disadvantage. This is why hiring a lawyer is often a good idea as a legal professional understands the administrative procedure and puts the liable parties in a position to compel.

Inmates have every right to healthcare, just as free people are. As a society, we are bound by basic human decency and morality. Fortunately, the U.S. Constitution recognizes these principles, giving you a strong starting point in fighting for the rights of loved ones who suffered while incarcerated.

Written by
Serah Waweru

A graduate of Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, Serah Waweru is a personal injury and immigration attorney based in Tacoma, Washington. Her law firm serves clients in Washington and all over the United States. Serah has always been passionate about the law; she served as the Vice President of the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Student Bar Association and vice president of the university's Black Law Students Association. Attorney Serah Waweru is also a proud member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the Washington State Bar Association.

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