A lawsuit filed last week by Oregon’s ACLU is shining a light on the state’s obligations to provide medical treatment for prisoners, according to a news release from the group and coverage in The Oregonian. Last week the group filed suit on behalf of a transgender woman who is currently an inmate at the Two Rivers Correctional Facility in Umatilla. The ACLU says the prisoner “is being denied essential medical care. The suit… argues that it is cruel and unusual punishment to deny medically-necessary care to prisoners.”
The Oregon Department of Corrections’ own “Health Services” web page acknowledges that “state and federal laws have established that inmates are entitled to health care during incarceration. Health care services available to inmates must be comparable to health care provided in the community in order to meet the state’s legal obligation. This means that all types and levels of health care must be provided in a clinically appropriate manner by properly credentialed professionals in settings equipped and designed for the delivery of health care.” By these parameters health care, legally speaking, has to be considered a civil right where prisoners are concerned. Denial of appropriate care, therefore, can be challenged using 42 US Code 1983 – a key legal text concerning civil rights. 42 USC 1983 allows anyone who has been deprived of “any rights privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” to sue the person or institution which violated those rights in civil court.
So if we take that acknowledgement by the state DOC as a starting point, the question must be asked: how can the agency defend the conduct alleged in the ACLU lawsuit? Specifically, the group charges that the state has denied its client’s repeated “requests for hormone treatment, despite an official diagnosis of gender dysphoria. The lawsuit also accuses state officials of placing (the plaintiff) in segregation or solitary confinement for weeks and sometimes months at a time,” the newspaper reports. When placed in a Disciplinary Segregation Unit following a suicide attempt earlier this year “staff mocked her and called her a ‘freak’ and other vulgar names,” the suit alleges. A mental health professional who evaluated the woman on behalf of the DOC referred to her repeated requests for essential hormone treatments as “quality of life issues” according to The Oregonian, and repeatedly referred to the prisoner using male pronouns (the 25 year old prisoner has publicly identified as female since the age of 16).
As The Oregonian notes, the issues raised by the case are not unique. Indeed, “the lawsuit is the latest in a national wave of cases. Since August, transgender prisoners have filed similar lawsuits in Florida, Delaware, Missouri and Nebraska.” The paper adds that the federal government has supported similar claims in a suit filed in Georgia. In short, the idea that the state’s duty to provide appropriate and comprehensive medical services extends to hormone treatments for transgender prisoners is neither a new, nor a particularly shocking claim in legal terms.
Though the lawsuit focuses on access to medical treatment it seems to me as a Portland attorney focusing on individual rights that there are also other issues also in play here. The treatment described by the ACLU, while secondary to their particular legal claim, appears to present a case for misconduct in and of itself. While prisoners are not a particularly sympathetic population in the public mind, the fact remains that they are entitled to professional and dignified treatment from their guards and from other prison staff. Failure to provide that treatment simply multiplies if it is allowed to go unchecked.
Oregon Department of Corrections “Health Services” page