Jefferson County Inmate Death and Oregon Prison Medical Care

Last month I wrote about private prison companies in a blog focused on prisoner medical care and civil rights issues. I want to return to that issue today, but shift the focus away from the privatization of public services and toward the services themselves.

A few days ago Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that “a Jefferson County grand jury has indicted three of the county sheriff’s deputies in connection with an inmate’s death last April.” The broadcaster reports that the deputies were charged with criminally negligent homicide, a felony. The broadcaster reports that “the attorney for at least one of the deputies said her client plans to plead not guilty.”

The charges stem from the death of a man who had been held in the county jail for two days following his arrest on drug charges in late April 2017. The victim reported to guards that he was not feeling well on the morning of April 26. “He was seen by nurses employed by the sheriff’s office,” but it was only later that same morning when he again reported being ill that an ambulance was called. By then, it was too late. The inmate died a short time later, according to OPB.

The obvious question this raises is whether the nurses and jail staff acted appropriately. It is important to understand, however, that the criminal charges which have already been brought against the deputies are not, and should not, be the end of the matter.

As I have noted in this space before, prison inmates may not be a popular or sympathetic class of persons, but that does not mean that they lose their rights once they are behind bars. This is especially true of their right to humane treatment, including proper and necessary medical care. Indeed, when the government, at any level, takes a person into custody – thereby depriving them of the ability to make many of their own health care decisions – the law requires that the government offer proper care.

This is so basic in legal terms that it is considered a civil rights issue. The statute 42 United States Code 1983 reaffirms the duty of governments to respect civil rights, and a 1978 Supreme Court decision (Monell v Department of Social Services of the City of New York (438 US 658)) explicitly extended this obligation to local governments, not just to the federal government or the states.

The 1983 and Monell standards hold that “every person” who, in exercising official authority, causes someone to be deprived “of any rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws,” is liable for the injuries they cause. In short, both people (the deputies, the nurses) and institutions (the sheriff’s office) can be held responsible for their actions, or lack thereof, if these lead to injury, illness or death through negligence or neglect. As a practical matter, that means that a plaintiff bringing a so-called “1983” case needs to establish that the responsible parties (e.g. the people running the jail) acted with deliberate indifference as they were carrying out their duties. In doing so, they would have violated the 14thAmendment of the Constitution, which guarantees everyone equal protection of the laws. Because this case involves incarceration a successful 1983 claim could also be made by showing a violation of the 8thamendment, prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishment.” It is important to understand that this responsibility extends not just to the deputies who oversaw the jail hour-to-hour but also to the supervisory personnel who trained and oversaw them.

As a Portland civil rights attorney I have spent many years both following and litigating cases like these: situations in which the government at some level has failed in its basic duties to Oregonians and Washingtonians for whom it has taken responsibility. We are focused here on prisoners, but the same principal extends to many other areas of modern life: mental institutions, foster care and government-run emergency services and schools, to name only a few. A case such as this one, touching both law enforcement and health care is especially troubling, and I will be watching it closely as it develops in the weeks and months to come.


Oregon Public Broadcasting: Three Jefferson County Deputies Indicted In Connection with Inmate’s Death

Oregon Department of Corrections: Health Services

42 USC 1983 Summary


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