A sick person in detention is entirely at the mercy of the prison or jail for their medical care.
As the result of extreme overcrowding, budget cuts, and the profit priorities of for-profit health care providers, people in prisons, jails and detention facilities with medical needs suffer from scant medical care. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the Deep South, where SCHR has challenged poor medical care and intolerable living conditions in litigation for decades.
Over the weekend, NPR reported on yet another lawsuit challenging the subpar medical care that prisoners — currently the only group in the United States with a constitutional right to healthcare — receive.
Lewis v. Cain
Francis Brauner was instrumental in launching a class-action suit on behalf of all people currently incarcerated at Louisiana’s Angola prison, suing for care that allegedly caused them “needless pain and suffering.” According to NPR, Mr. Brauner was sent to Dixon Correctional Institute in Louisiana in 2005. He was sentenced to 20 years, with hard labor involved. When he was roughly a quarter of the way through his sentence, he was working in the fields when an inexplicable pain shot through him — perhaps some remnant of back trouble caused by a car accident years ago — but intense enough that he could no longer stand up.
Mr. Brauner was taken to a hospital in New Orleans, but Hurricane Katrina soon hit the city, and he was moved to Angola prison. He was told the larger facilities would mean better resources and faster treatment. Instead, he languished in bed in the hospital ward for a month, essentially unattended. He developed bedsores so severe that they ate through muscle. He was denied necessary surgeries. He eventually became paralyzed from the waist down.
Soon after arriving at Angola, Mr. Brauner experienced serious lapses in medical attention and kept continuous notes of the subpar care other incarcerated people were receiving in a journal. He shared it with his attorney, Nick Trenticosta. Trenticosta was shocked when he visited the hospital ward at Angola. According to NPR:
“There were open garbage containers,” Trenticosta recounted. “Fly tape hanging from the ceiling with a lot of dead flies on it. Over men’s beds who had open bedsores.”
Mr. Brauner went on to sue several of his Angola doctors and jailers, claiming they were deliberately indifferent to the severity of his medical condition, violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Then, in 2015, the ACLU of Louisiana, along with The Promise of Justice Initiative, the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, and the Advocacy Center filed a complaint against the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, Lewis v. Cain. According to the ACLU of Louisiana, the “complaint alleges that the [Angola] prison’s more than 6,000 prisoners are all at risk of serious harm, while scores of men have already experienced unnecessary injury, suffering and death.” Late last month, Judge Shelly Dick said the case could proceed as a class action lawsuit on behalf of Angola’s prisoners.
Substandard medical care in detention facilities has created a public health crisis, with more than 600,000 people being released from prison every year and going home to their communities, carrying with them both infectious diseases and medical conditions requiring immediate attention and resources. Medical failures are particularly pervasive in jails, where detainees with serious medical needs are often ignored by a system that knows the average length of stay for jail detainees is 3 months. Rather than treat the individual as a patient, medical systems in jails more often treat them as problems that will leave their jurisdiction in a matter of months.
To ensure adequate medical care for people who are incarcerated, SCHR has brought a number of class action lawsuits.
For example, SCHR filed Leatherwood v. Campbell, a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of all men who were HIV-positive and incarcerated at Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, Alabama. The lawsuit challenged the inadequate medical treatment and deplorable housing provided to HIV-positive men at the facility. The defendants named in the lawsuit were the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) and NaphCare Inc., the state’s former private medical provider. The ADOC and the plaintiffs entered into a two-year settlement agreement in which the Defendants agreed to improve HIV medical care at Limestone by ensuring that all incarcerated people who are HIV-positive received their medications, by hiring a full-time HIV Specialist, and by improving the living conditions for all people with HIV at the institution.