Last week it was announced that the family of “a mentally ill inmate in Oregon will receive $2.85 million to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit that alleged the man died of dehydration and starvation after jail staff failed to get him medical treatment during a depressive episode,” according to a report by the Associated Press that was reposted on the website of US News & World Report.
Last August I wrote about a situation in California that has certain similarities to this one. That case resulted in a $5 million settlement. While it is good to see justice done in both of these cases the fact that in both instances it took a human being’s death for prison officials belatedly to acknowledge their duties is a sorry commentary on the state of care in our prisons and mental institutions.
The California case involved a man suffering from schizophrenia. The case here in Oregon focused on a night in April 2015 when a bipolar man was found dead “after refusing to eat, drink or take medication.” According to the AP, shift logs from the Lincoln County, Oregon jail showed that the inmate had exhibited disturbing behavior “for days.” He “dunked his bedding and clothing in his toilet” soiled his cell, “spit out his food and splashed water around his cell until deputies shut off the water,” the news agency reports, citing court papers filed with a federal court in Eugene.
While there are state laws that are relevant to a case like this the more important fact to note is that both the California and the Oregon cases were pursued through the federal court system. In both cases the attorneys involved served their clients well by understanding that 42 US Code 1983 offers plaintiffs powerful legal tools because of the way in which it defines civil rights violations. The key portion of this statute defines civil rights violations as “the deprivation of any rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” to either US citizens or persons under US or state jurisdiction (meaning, in plain English, that foreigners also have rights when they are held in an American prison or jail).
In the Oregon case this is a significant distinction. The victim was originally held by county authorities and was later transferred to state custody, where he died. The fact that he was never detained by the federal government did not prevent his estate from taking its lawsuit to a federal court, where a civil rights case could be most effectively pursued.
As a Portland attorney interested in civil rights issues I feel it is important for Oregonians to understand the legal nuances of cases like this because they are important for our broader understanding of the law. This is one of those instances where the legal definition of a common term (“civil rights”) is significantly different – in this case broader – than the way in which it is popularly perceived. That distinction is important for every Oregonian determined to protect their rights of themselves and their loved ones.
AP via US News & World Report: Oregon County Pays $2.8M in Mentally Ill Inmate’s Death
Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute: 42 US Code 1983
Oregon Department of Human Services: How to Report Abuse and Neglect
Oregon Department of Human Services: Mandatory Reporting