Prison Death Case Raises Serious Civil Rights Issues

The death by thirst of an inmate in a Wisconsin jail last year has returned to the news this week raising serious civil rights issues and, in the process, shining a light on the broader problem of inmate abuse nationwide.

The story from Milwaukee is shocking on every level. According to a recent report in HuffPost, citing the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, a mentally-ill man died of severe dehydration last year while being held in the county jail after he “was kept in his cell for seven days straight after jail employees cut off his water supply.” Last week prosecutors, speaking at a formal inquest, called the action “highly irregular and contrary to standard operating procedure in the jail,” according to HuffPost. The article does not use the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” – something explicitly prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution – but on its face it is difficult to see how cutting off a prisoner’s water for a week would not rise to that standard.

The case is receiving renewed attention as an inquest seeks to determine whether or not criminal charges should be brought against any of the jail’s employees or their supervisors. The decision will be made by a six-person jury. The case highlights a broader point about deaths in custody that some organizations, notably the American Civil Liberties Union, have been making for some time. An article on the ACLU’s website documents the degree to which “excessive force by correctional staff… leads to extreme, unnecessary suffering and sometimes death.” Along the same lines, a HuffPost investigation found that more than 800 people died in American jails last year, 182 of them within three days of their arrest.

Collectively, legal actions like these are referred to as “1983” cases. The name is a reference to 43 US Code 1983 – Civil Action for Deprivation of Rights (see link below). This states that anyone who “under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom or usage” denies any person his or her constitutional “rights, privileges and immunities… shall be liable to the party injured at law.” Simply put, it warns law enforcement and other government authorities that they are subject to civil as well as criminal claims if they abuse prisoners or deny them their legitimate rights. Crucially, this extends to customs and practices. In other words, if it is the normal practice of a prison or jail not to have timely access to necessary medical care for prisoners or to deny prisoners basic necessities (e.g. water) either as a matter of policy or as punishment for bad behavior, these actions are in violation of both the Constitution’s guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment and its guarantee of equal treatment.

Civil rights and other 1983 cases have long been a particular concern of mine as a Portland attorney practicing in both Oregon and Washington. The sort of neglect outlined in HuffPost and on the ACLU website is simply unacceptable in modern America, yet, all too often, we dismiss issues like this because the victims are not sympathetic figures. It is important, however to remember that the rights we have as Americans need to be honored by all levels of government and do not simply disappear when one is arrested.

Abuse and neglect are against the law whenever and wherever they occur. The law is especially strict when the victim is a child, elderly or is mentally disabled – as in this case. The fact that the victim was in jail does not change that fact.


HuffPost: Man Who Died of Thirst in Sheriff David Clarke’s Jail Had Water Cut Off for a Week

Cornell University Legal Information Institute: 42 USC 1983


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