Denied Medical Treatment in Jail and Prison

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In 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) director, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, wrote an article arguing that health is a fundamental human right. 

In the article, Dr. Ghebreyesus defined the right to health as people having access to health services without them incurring a significant financial burden.

Today, many countries worldwide have constitutional provisions protecting citizens’ rights to medical and health services.

However, suppose your friend or family member is in jail or prison. In that case, you may wonder how incarceration can affect their health rights.

If you think a prison or jail system denied your loved one access to medical treatment, you may ask: What does denying medical treatment in jail or prison means? 

How can you know and prove that these correctional facilities denied your loved one access to medical treatment? What are some examples of denied medical treatment in jails and prisons?

On the other hand, if you are assisting your loved one in getting the medical treatment they need, you may wonder, who is in charge of providing medical care to inmates? Who is eligible for medical care in jail and prison?

 This article provides vital information regarding denied medical treatment in jails. is your go-to site for many topics involving inmates and correctional facilities across the country. We also offer an online search tool to help you locate people in jails and prisons.

Read on to learn the details regarding denied medical treatment in jails and prisons, what this issue means, the reason for its denial, and how you can address it.

Do Inmates Have a Constitutional Right to Health Care?

Incarceration limits the freedom of inmates who are confined in jails or prisons, which means they do not have full constitutional rights.

However, the Eighth Amendment protects incarcerated individuals from inhumane and unusual punishment. The United States (U.S.) Supreme Court holds that this amendment requires the government to provide health services to inmates.

What Are Inmates’ Rights to Medical Treatment in Jail or Prison?

Inmates with physical or mental illnesses are eligible for medical and mental health care. 

However, prison officials can only allow prisoners access to reasonable or adequate health services.

Moreover, inmates with disabilities can access reasonable treatment under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

What Are Some Examples of Denied Prison Medical Care?

Sometimes, correctional officers deny jail or prison inmates the appropriate healthcare for their medical conditions. 

Several examples of denied medical care that may constitute a violation of inmates’ civil rights include:

  • Disregarding inmates’ health symptoms: Failure to address the prisoner’s symptoms could worsen injury or disease, causing additional complications or possibly death.
  • Unreasonable delays in medical service: A delay in providing medical care may qualify as denial because neglecting critical conditions can worsen an inmate’s medical problem.
  • Refusal to treat infections: Infections can get much worse and lead to sepsis (the body’s extreme reaction to infections) or wrongful death if left unaddressed.
  • Failure to provide prescribed medication: Inmates have the right to access prescription drugs, whether for a pre-existing health condition or one that developed during prison or jail sentences.

If Your Loved One Is Not Receiving Treatment

You have the following options if your loved one is not receiving appropriate medical attention in jail or prison:

  • Contact the correctional facility’s medical staff. Disclaimer: confidentiality policies may restrict or make contacting the prison’s or jail’s staff more challenging. 
  • Bring the necessary medication or documentation to the jail or prison. You can bring your loved one’s prescribed medication and relevant medical records to the facility once you get the prison staff’s permit.
  • If possible and necessary, arrange for your loved one’s psychiatrist to visit them in jail. Usually, the county or the state prison’s Department of Corrections staff reviews the mental health care provider’s treatment plan. 

Moreover, if your loved one has suicidal thoughts, request the jail or prison healthcare staff to place them under suicide watch.

If Your Loved One Is Being Mistreated

Here are two ways you can address mistreatment cases in jails or prisons:

  • File an official complaint against the facility. If you cannot reach the staff by phone or e-mail and you live near the facility’s location, you may go to them and file your complaint in person.
  • Ask your state’s advocacy and protection agency for assistance. These agencies are in charge of protecting the rights of incarcerated individuals, especially those with disabilities.

You may also contact the state’s corrections department or the Governor’s Office if the mistreatment case remains unresolved.

A jail or prison system can mistreat sick or injured inmates by denying them access to reasonable medical treatment. This failure to provide health care services to eligible individuals violates the U.S. Constitution.

In 1976, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Estelle v. Gamble that disregarding an inmate’s urgent medical requirements can amount to cruel and unusual treatment. 

How to Prove Denied Prison Medical Care

Plaintiffs have to demonstrate that the jail or prison staff knew of the inmate’s medical need in question and intentionally ignored it. You can seek a civil rights lawyer’s assistance to establish your case successfully.

Moreover, liability can extend beyond the officials in prison or jail. For example, you may file a legal complaint against the institution’s private healthcare providers.

Your best option to hold all responsible parties accountable is to work with an experienced attorney. 

These professionals can also help you find expert witnesses, like physicians, who can help determine whether the responsible parties are guilty of medical malpractice or neglect.

Civil rights lawyers can also help you demand restitution through a lawsuit by listing the damages your loved one has incurred due to denied medical treatment.

Identifying Who Is Responsible

In post-arrest scenarios, arrest and incident reports can identify which correctional office is responsible for the medical neglect or blunder. 

However, identifying who is guilty within the institution’s staff requires extensive document requests.

Moreover, identifying the guilty party requires you to understand the progress of the inmates’ conditions from the time they entered the correctional facility to the time of their injury or death. 

You must also be able to determine the personnel in charge of your loved ones’ medical needs.  

Here are examples of documents that may help you accomplish the tasks above:

  • Intake records (required process for every individual’s jail or prison entry )
  • Medical pre-screening records
  • Mental health and medical evaluations
  • The inmate’s medical or mental health requests
  • Housing logs (list of personnel responsible for supervising the housing unit)
  • Records of inmates’ movements and contacts

Why Inmates Are Denied Medical Care

Overpopulation and overcrowding in correctional institutions can significantly decrease the quality and availability of prison and jail medical care. This situation may cause the prison’s staff to deny specific health care services to inmates.

Moreover, some prisons and jails have partnerships with private healthcare corporations. Usually, these companies have little incentive to provide appropriate health care services to inmates.

On the other hand, there are prison or jail staff members who are incompetent or simply do not care about inmates’ health conditions. If this case happens to your loved one, you may file an official complaint against the involved officers.

The Responsibility to Provide Prison Medical Care

The U.S. Constitution mandates all prison officers to provide all pretrial detainees and state and federal prisoners with adequate medical care.

Tort laws, state statutes, and regulations may also protect a state prison inmate’s right to appropriate medical care.

 For example, in New York, the Official Compilation of Codes, Rules, and Regulations of the State of New York and the New York Correction Law explains the right of state prisoners to sufficient health care services.

Can an Inmate Be Denied Medical Treatment?

Corrections officers can legally deny inmates’ medical treatment for various reasons. However, prison and jail staff cannot legally deny treatment to inmates with urgent medical needs.

What Is Deliberate Indifference?

Deliberate indifference means an officer has a careless disregard for the significant risk of harm to the inmate despite knowing about it. 

The officer also does not take reasonable steps to reduce or eliminate the dangers.

Can You Refuse Medical Treatment in Prison?

Inmates can refuse specific treatment, like mental health treatment, while in prison or jail. 

However, the Due Process Clause allows the state to treat inmates with severe mental health conditions with antipsychotic drugs against their will.

Handling Medication

Prisoners and detainees have the right to receive health care services while incarcerated. However, these individuals cannot receive treatment if they do not make an official request. 

Immediately after your loved one’s arrest, you can contact the officers in charge and inform them of your loved one’s medical or mental health requirements. 

This step can help you get permission to bring the appropriate medication to the correctional facility.

Failure To Provide Adequate Medical Services Is Common

Poor access to medical care is prevalent in the United State’s correctional institutions. 

A study by Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance indicated that 20% of sick state prisoners had not seen a health care professional since their incarceration. 

The survey also showed that about 14% of federal prison inmates had not seen a nurse or doctor since their imprisonment.

Was The Medical Need Serious?

Not all neglect of injuries or medical conditions in prison or jail can result in constitutional liability. Correctional institutions typically address severe medical needs only.

The medical need is serious if even a nonprofessional can recognize the inmate’s need for a doctor’s attention.

Did The Official Act With Deliberate Indifference?

Below is a list of three factors that can mean an officer acted with deliberate indifference to your loved one’s medical needs:

  • The officer intentionally decided what to do with your loved one’s medical needs in prison.
  • The official’s decision put your loved one at significant risk of severe harm.
  • The officer did not undertake reasonable steps to mitigate the risk even though it was a high-risk situation.

Be Careful of Medical-Negligence Arguments

As much as possible, you must not make the case about medical malpractice or inadequacy of treatment. This consideration is critical because medical professionals and physicians have different opinions regarding treatment procedures.

Therefore, your denial-of-medical-care claim can fail under state or federal law.

Protecting Inmates’ Rights To Medical Care And Medication

Some laws and policies protect detainees’ and prisoners’ rights to adequate medical services. 

However, in cases where law enforcement officers violate these regulations, there are non-profit organizations that can help inmates establish their cases against unjust denial of medical care. 

Action Inmates’ Spouses Can Take

You take the following steps if your spouse is not receiving adequate health care services in prison:

  • Verify that the prison and jail staff know your spouse’s medical needs and conditions. Collect sealed and dated documents detailing the staff’s response to your loved one’s situation.
  • Examine relevant documents such as health care notes and appointment requests, medical records, and your spouse’s official complaint

The more credible information you gather, the higher your chances of winning the case.

Color Of State Law Requirement

Public officers act under the color of state law when they act in an official capacity or while practicing responsibilities under state law.

Post-arrest Fourth Amendment Standard

The Fourth Amendment mandates law enforcement officers to provide objectively reasonable post-arrest care.

Post-arrest cases typically happen when an officer’s actions cause injuries to the arrestee during a police encounter or where the encounter involves an individual under drug influence. 

Fourteenth Amendment Standard For “Pretrial Detainees

A pretrial detainee is an individual confined in a custody facility before conviction. Denying adequate medical care to detainees can violate the Fourteenth Amendment.

A denial-of-medical-care claim must demonstrate that the inmate has a severe medical need. However, the staff in charge responded with deliberate indifference.

Complete Denial Of Medical Care Is Not Necessary

In denial-of-medical-care cases, accused individuals usually point to brief encounters that an inmate may have had with a healthcare professional to avoid liability. 

However, to establish deliberate indifference, complainants do not need to prove that the prison staff completely denied medical services to inmates. 

Importance Of Cell Safety Checks

Many in-custody deaths occur with the detainee dying or found unconscious in their cell due to the deputies’ failure to conduct safety checks and disregarding requests for medical care.

However, the United States Penal Code mandates cell safety checks. This policy requires officers to supervise inmates at least every hour directly.

Qualified Immunity – A Growing Impediment To § 1983 Claims

Qualified immunity is a legal principle shielding public professionals from civil liability under specific conditions. 

This immunity only applies if the civil servant did not violate clear statutory and constitutional rights known to a reasonable person.

Alternative State-law Claims

Complainants can use state law claims for negligence and failure to provide adequate medical care to establish their denial-of-medical-care case. 

Established state statutes can help plaintiffs win against defendants who appeal to qualified immunity rules under federal law.

Eighth Amendment

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the unnecessary and intentional infliction of pain. In Estelle v. Gamble, officers who responded in deliberate indifference to prisoners’ severe medical needs are guilty of an Eighth Amendment violation.

Legal Test

Plaintiffs must demonstrate that the prison or jail officials have committed medical indifference, meaning they have knowingly ignored urgent medical needs, to establish their legal claims. 

Deliberate Indifference

Deliberate indifference refers to an officer’s reckless response to inmates’ urgent medical needs despite knowing its potentially grave consequences. 

For example, refusing inmates dental referrals to punish them for their behavior may constitute deliberate indifference.

Moreover, in Benter v. Peck, a district court concluded that prison officers acted deliberately indifferently when they withheld an inmate’s prescription glasses.

Serious Medical Need

The list of conditions indicates what constitutes an urgent medical need:

  • A considerable pain
  • Symptoms that significantly interfere with the inmate’s daily activities
  • A potentially life-threatening injury
  • A diagnosed severe medical or psychological condition

Examples Of Inadequate Medical Care

Here are some examples of inadequate medical care:

  • Delayed medical care
  • Denied medical treatment
  • Failure to follow medical orders

Substantiating The Claim

When establishing a denial-of-medical-care case, your primary consideration is finding evidence that the officers knew of your loved one’s health condition. 

You can request access to the official and dated documents related to your loved one’s medical needs to confirm your claim.

Who are the State Actors?

State actors refer to any individuals acting on behalf of a government agency. If denied medical treatment in prisons or jails, these people can include the institution’s staff members.

Legal Assistance

Prisoners can lose specific rights while serving their prison sentences. For example, authorities may seize inmates’ property or limit their privacy rights. 

However, the law prohibits prison staff from issuing inhumane and unusual penalties.

If your loved one has experienced mistreatment while in jail or prison, you may ask for legal assistance from credible law firms. Lawyers specializing in civil litigation or personal injury cases can help you win your case.

Additional Resources

If you require more details regarding inmates’ rights to medical care in prison or jail, you can browse resources from the United States Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs. 

You can also visit the sites of non-profit organizations such as the Prison Policy Initiative or the American Civil Liberties Union.


  1. Should I consider taking legal action? Do I need an attorney to handle my case?

You should consider taking legal action if your loved one has suffered medical neglect in prison or jail. This act may help you get the justice your loved one deserves.

Moreover, if you are unsure how to proceed with your legal claims, you can seek the services of an experienced attorney.


1. Health is a fundamental human right
2. Prisoners’ rights
3 Using the Constitution tO Improve Prisoner Health
4. Do Inmates Have Rights? If So, What Are They?
5. Medical and Mental Health Care
6. Your Right to Adequate Medical Care
7. U.S. prisoners sicker than believed and have poor access to care
8. Pretrial Detainee’s Right to Medical Care
9. Title 15 Minimum Standards For Local Detention Facilities
10. Qualified Immunity

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