A Shocking Story Offers Civil Rights Reminder

An incident in Colorado, recently recounted by The Oregonian, offers striking insight into the culture of neglect in our prisons and the important role our courts must play in ensuring justice is done.

On the night of July 31, 2018, the newspaper reports, an inmate at a county jail in Denver “gave birth to her son alone in her cell without medical supervision or treatment, despite repeatedly telling the jail’s staff that she was having contractions, according to a federal lawsuit.” The paper reports that the entire incident was “captured on surveillance video.” Yet, astonishingly, “an internal investigation by the Denver Sheriff’s Department cleared its deputies of wrongdoing.”

To call this appalling is an understatement. As I noted in a blog last March, an 8-1 Supreme court ruling dating all the way back to 1976 (Estelle v Gamble) clearly established the right of prisoners to adequate medical care. The court wrote that “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners” falls under the constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In legal circles the collective name for legal actions such as these are “1983 Cases”. This refers to 43 USC 1983, a section of federal law which states that all government jurisdictions (city, county or state, for example) are required to give people in their custody the same civil rights to which the US constitution entitles them. It ensures that we do not have a two-tier system of justice under which state or local courts can deny Americans the rights they enjoy at the federal level. As a practical matter, 1983 cases form a body of law that defines civil rights far more broadly than the colloquial use of that term.

Legally speaking, civil rights are any rights that a person is due under the constitution. Withholding treatment from a woman who has alerted jail staff to the fact that she is going into labor clearly fits that definition. If the lack of care led to injuries to the baby these, too, could be heard as 1983 cases in a court. In addition, acts that may have endangered either the mother or the child are potentially also actionable as reckless or negligent behavior. The applicability of federal law also makes it more difficult for the people who ran the jail to claim immunity as a government agency, or to enforce caps on damages that might be applicable under state law.

The fact that the local Sheriff’s office claims to have investigated yet found no misconduct on any employees’ part merits special attention. Assuming the facts of this case have been accurately reported, it is difficult to believe that someone has not acted irresponsibly.

As an Oregon and Washington attorney I have long seen it as my duty to help ordinary Americans use the courts to obtain justice, even when going up against the daunting power of the government. Operating at the intersection of federal and state law, 1983 cases can be particularly confusing for victims and their loved ones trying to navigate the system. Even when a case seems as clear-cut as the one outlined here the legal issues involved are often complex. The important thing to bear in mind is that the law is ultimately on your side.


The Oregonian: ‘Nobody Cared’: A woman gave birth alone in a jail cell after cries for help were ignored, lawsuit says

Cornell University Legal Information Institute: 42 USC 1983

Justia.com: Estelle v Gamble (429 US 97 (1976))


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