Jail Deaths & Civil Rights

For most people the phrase “civil rights” conjures a particular set of images: Martin Luther King Jr speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. A small child walking to school surrounded by national guardsmen. But as a matter of law, civil rights is a term that applies to much more than racial discrimination.

Simply put, civil rights litigation is about ensuring that no American is denied any of the rights granted to them under the United States Constitution. Race is a big part of that, but so are both due process and the Eighth Amendment guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. The law gives the government extraordinary power over the lives and freedoms of each individual and civil rights law, considered broadly, is about ensuring that government at all levels uses those powers properly and is held to account when it fails to do so.

These actions – civil rights lawsuits that are not necessarily about racial discrimination – are known among lawyers as “1983 Cases.” The name refers to a specific section of federal law: 42 US Code 1983, titled “Civil action for deprivation of rights.” This states, in part, that the government, at any level, must be accountable for any action that “causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law.” In plain English that means that we all have rights which the government must respect.

That obligation also extends to “state actors” – a legal term that includes anyone acting on the government’s behalf, such as a private prison company or a contractor providing food or health care services at a county jail. In recent years local, county or municipal jails have often been the focus of 1983 cases, not just the larger state and federal prison systems.

That point is especially important because private, for-profit, companies have been taking over the running of jails and prisons (or, in some cases, taking over specific services, such as health care) from state and local governments for decades. As an extensive investigation by CNN has documented (see link below), Tennessee-based Wellpath (formerly known as Correct Care Solutions) is both a leader when it comes to winning contracts to run prison services and the target of numerous allegations of misconduct and neglect. CNN reports that dozens of lawsuits have been filed against the company.

When a company like Wellpath takes on business that is a government function, it becomes a “state actor” and is bound by the same obligation to respect prisoners’ human, civil and constitutional rights as the state or local government that hired it. It also means that the government body signing the contract it liable for the company’s actions if it does not monitor them and ensure that the company is following the law.

More than 40 years ago the Supreme Court affirmed this principle in the case of Estelle v Gamble ((429 US 97 (1976)). The 8-1 decision confirmed that the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against “cruel and unusual punishment” means that federal, state and local authorities must provide adequate medical care to the people they imprison. The lone justice in the minority (John Paul Stevens) noted that he had “no serious disagreement” with the outcome of the case and was dissenting only on technical grounds regarding the court’s handling of the matter. A 1993 case that built on Estelle to broaden health and civil rights protections for prisoners – Helling v McKinney (509 US 25) – was decided by a margin of 7-2. Between them these cases set clear rules for federal, state and local officials charged with the care of prisoners – and for the outside companies they hire to carry out those duties in their place.

One of Oregon’s highest-profile 1983 cases is a good example of both the issues prisoners face and the powerful role our courts can play in holding officials accountable for their actions. In 2015 Jed Hawk Myers died in the Yamhill County Jail after being left alone in his cell for hours following only a cursory examination by law enforcement officers. This video from the Oregonian explains the case in greater detail:

Kaplan Law LLC played a central role in this case, helping Myers’ family obtain the justice they deserved in the wake of Jed’s death.

As the Myers case reminds us, prisoners – be they hardened criminals serving long sentences or people in a local lock-up who have not been charged with, let alone convicted of, anything – are among the least sympathetic figures in American life. Yet it is important to remember that simply being arrested on suspicion of a crime, or being convicted of one, does not mean that a person loses all his or her rights.

At Kaplan Law LLC we offer legal help to people who believe that they or a loved one have suffered a catastrophic loss because they have been deprived of their constitutional rights to adequate necessary medical care while in jail.

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