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When we think about prisons and jails, we don’t expect prisoners to “have it easy.” But on the other hand, under our constitutional system, we do expect the state to provide basic healthcare. That isn’t always the case, here or abroad.

Diagnosed with pancreatitis and gall bladder disease, Russian attorney Sergei Magnitsky was left to die in the Russian pretrial detention center he called home for nearly a year. Magnitsky was jailed for tax evasion charges in 2008 when he accused the ministry of internal affairs of stealing $230 million from the treasury with fraudulent tax documents. Dr. Larisa Litvinova, who faced a possible three years in prison, told watchdog group Public Oversight Commission that Magnitsky’s stomach swelled and he vomited repeatedly the day before he died of heart failure and toxic shock on November 16, 2009. She said she tried to get him help, but investigators refused to cooperate. In fact, for a year and a half after his death, investigators claimed that Magnitsky died of natural causes and never complained about any ailments.

In this country, pretrial prisoners are protected by the Bill of Rights' Eighth Amendment, which outlaws cruel and unusual punishment, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1976 ruling in Estelle v. Gamble, which states, in part:

"…it is but just that the public be required to care for the prisoner, who cannot, by reason of the deprivation of his liberty, care for himself."

We therefore conclude that deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain," Gregg v. Georgia, supra, at 428 U. S. 173 (joint opinion), proscribed by the Eighth Amendment. This is true whether the indifference is manifested by prison doctors in their response to the prisoner's needs or by prison guards in intentionally denying or delaying access to medical care or intentionally interfering with the treatment once prescribed. Regardless of how evidenced, deliberate indifference to a prisoner's serious illness or injury states a cause of action under § 1983.

In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to release tens of thousands of prison inmates last May, because overcrowding was causing suffering and death, according to San Diego’s KPBS Public Broadcasting.

When a state confines someone, whether proven guilty or charged and presumed innocent, that inmate can be denied basic healthcare in two primary ways: (1) denial of access to healthcare providers, giving rise to a civil rights claim; or (2) inadequate healthcare through nurse or physician negligence, giving rise to potential of both a civil rights claim and a physician malpractice lawsuit.

We’ve handled Ohio cases involving denial of health services to inmates. The cases are troubling, whether they’re the result of poor training—guards who don’t know the signs of an inmate in medical distress—or a lack of human decency. Each violates the basic precept that this is a government of laws, not men: individuals cannot give us a death penalty simply because they hold the keys to the jail cell.

Do you think jail or prison inmates should receive lower quality healthcare, or is this not the role of individuals to decide? Have you experienced something similar? Share your story with our other readers by leaving a comment below. Please do not disclose personally identifiable confidential information. If you need legal advice, please use the private contact form on the right side of this page: Cleveland civil rights lawyers.

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