The series begins with several examples of prison and jail deaths, followed by a stark statistic: “Since 2008, at least 306 people across the Northwest have died after being taken to a county jail.” Over the course of a three-part investigation published last week Oregon Public Broadcasting, working in cooperation with other public media outlets in Oregon and Washington, offered a detailed, and disturbing, look at the state of health care available to people jailed here in the Pacific Northwest.
Notably, the death statistic does not come from an official source. As OPB reports, “until now, that number was unknown, in part because Oregon and Washington have not comprehensively tracked those deaths in county jails.” In other words: it took a media investigation to determine the extent of the problem, one that OPB calls “a crisis of rising death rates in overburdened jails that have been set up to fail the inmates they are tasked with keeping safe.”
OPB reports that suicide is “by far the leading cause of jail deaths in the Pacific Northwest, (accounting) for nearly half of all cases with a known cause of death.” Yet the issues the series raises concerning negligence and indifference on the part of jail staff are also significant. The series offers a number of examples of inmates who died after being served food to which they were allergic, or whose complaints about serious medical issues were ignored.
As I noted in a blog on prison health care last month, there is little doubt where the legal responsibility lies in such cases. The government’s obligation to provide medical treatment to people it incarcerates was settled decades ago. In 1976 the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that “deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s serious illness or injury constitutes cruel and unusual punishment contravening the Eighth Amendment.” (Estelle v Gamble 429 US 97 (1976) – see link below). That makes inmate abuse or neglect a civil rights matter, governed by 42 USC 1983. This law which states that anyone who is deprived of their constitutional rights by any level of government (municipal, state or federal) has a legal claim against the people responsible. In cases like the ones we are discussing here, a “1983” legal action can also take the form of a civil suit for wrongful death.
Dealing with this issue requires changes in behavior at all levels of our society. It will require our legislators to demand better recordkeeping and data reporting on the part of state and local officials. We shouldn’t need a media investigation to determine whether a problem even exists. It will require senior officials at the local level – police chiefs and mayors, for example – to ensure that their subordinates are aware of their legal obligations and that supervisors properly monitor day-to-day conduct. It will require the for-profit companies that run far too many of our jails and prisons (including medical care) to put human concerns ahead of revenue. And it will require all of us, as a society, to put aside the dismissive attitude we too often have toward people behind bars. We are all taught in school that the constitution exists to safeguard everyone’s rights. It is always worth remembering that ‘everyone’ includes people in jail.
As a Portland attorney practicing in both Oregon and Washington I commend OPB and its partners for the important work they have done in assembling this series (links to all three parts of the investigation can be found at the bottom of this blog). None of us can afford to treat our constitutional rights as perks that local officials can honor or ignore at their convenience.
OPB: Booked & Buried
Part 1: Northwest Jails’ Mounting Death Toll
Part 2: Dead, But Not Convicted
Part 3: Suicide is the Leading Cause of Death in Oregon and Washington Jails
Cornell University Legal Information Institute: 42 USC 1983
Justia.com: Estelle v Gamble (429 US 97 (1976))