Will the Supreme Court Deprive Incarcerated People of Health Care?

January 9, 2024

Chandra Bozelko (Emerging Leaders™ 2016) writes at The National Memo:

“Admittedly, the high-shine concrete molding that lined the walls and met the floors overly waxed by inmates in the commercial cleaning program lost some of its luster, but workers at Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers, Connecticut were shifting. Only the ones who were deemed essential were going to work in the coming days.

“It was March 2020 and an infectious pandemic was on its way inside. Only those men who fed the inmates or whose work could help slow the spread of this novel disease would be working soon: kitchen workers, some cleaners, and the men who ran the laundry and washed the sheets and blankets the men used on their bunks.

“Above that dulled concrete, on an aluminum tabletop, rested the shoes of Captain Daniel Perez who was announcing the plan. Osborn’s Deputy Warden Nicole Thibeault stood by him as he explained. Laundry workers would move from E-Block to H-Block, a move no more than 100 yards but still worlds away now that the SARS-CoV-2 virus traveled among men. In E-Block, the laundry workers could shelter and essentially quarantine from each other in their single cells with bolted doors. But in H-Block, the cells were constructed of bars with inches of space between them, open invitations for the new coronavirus to travel.

“‘Any questions?’ Thibeault asked after Perez finished his explanation.

“Inmate Barry Guess piped up.

“‘Yes. My name is Barry Guess. I got a question. If I’m already in a single cell setting — no cellie, no possible way to have someone giving me COVID — why move me to a block that’s open with a cell that’s open, where I can possibly be given COVID or infected?’

“Thibeault provided perfunctory answers but warned that if people refused they face disciplinary action and the loss of their single, ostensibly safeguarded cell anyway.

[Incarcerated people] are the only population in the country who have a constitutional right to healthcare.

“No Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was provided to the laundry workers; they made masks themselves. As a result, all except one laundry worker contracted COVID — and that one exception wasn’t un-infected. He simply wasn’t tested. The first inmate to die of COVID-19 in Connecticut was a laundry worker at Osborn. Neither Thibault nor Perez let the other workers know that ‘Doc’ — as the other inmates called him — had passed.

“Eventually, the Department of Correction transferred the men to Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s death row when the death penalty was still in effect, but the laundry workers weren’t allowed to bathe for thirteen days — because administrators said they feared COVID would be caught in shower mist and spread.

“Christoper Nazario, a laundry worker who suffered a heart attack because of his COVID infection and who has since been released, sued Thibeault, arguing that she and the State of Connecticut exposed him and the other laundry workers to an unreasonable risk of serious damage to their health and, in so doing, violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Seven other laundry workers, including Guess, followed with their own claims. The district court in Connecticut united all eight plaintiffs into one case because their complaint was the same: the Department of Corrections intentionally disregarded their health.

“Thibeault responded by moving for summary judgment, arguing that there was no dispute that required a trial. According to Thibeault’s attorneys, the attorneys general for the State of Connecticut, corraling people together so they could contract COVID and die was never cruel nor unusual punishment and even if it were, Thibeault and other state employees can’t be held accountable for it because they work for a government agency.

“Last June, United States District Court Judge Vanessa L. Bryant denied Thibeault’s motion for summary judgment, an order that means one thing legally — that the facts and the law are in dispute and need to be resolved through a trial — and another thing factually. Bryant’s decision means that moving prisoners into areas that increased the likelihood that they would contract COVID might be cruel and unusual punishment, that those moves might have been what the courts call deliberate indifference, and that Thibault’s position that prisons and jails can’t be held accountable for these administrative choices isn’t necessarily correct. Bryant’s decision means that the law and standards for care may change with Nazario’s case.

“Bryant’s decision wasn’t good news for Thibeault. Unless the state settled the case, a trial would ensue. Witnessed would testify. he state’s COVID response would be on public display. Thirty inmates died of COVID in Connecticut prisons before July 2022 when the state stopped publicly reporting the deaths. It sounds like it isn’t many. With the state’s entire population at its lowest at 8945 in June 2021, 30 deaths create a death rate of three-tenths of a percent. By comparison, a little over one-tenth of a percent of the United States population died of COVID-19. The Connecticut inmate rate of death is twice that.

“About a month later, on July 29, 2022, Thibeault filed an interlocutory appeal — an appeal that happens before a case is over — to keep the case from proceeding to trial. Lawyers argued that interlocutory appeal before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals last week in New York and, depending on the outcome in a few months, one side or the other will appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States. And what’s worse is that the nation’s highest court may take it.

“Traditionally, the problem of lack of health care, substandard care, or conditions that endanger health was cured by the courts. A 1976 Supreme Court case, Estelle v. Gamble, established the law that the Eighth Amendment requires prisons and jails to provide adequate medical care to people in their custody. Through this decision, Inmates are the only population in the country who have a constitutional right to healthcare.

“While litigating claims of health is far from ideal — it’s not fast so there’s really no way to compel correction officials to provide emergency care — it has worked in the past. For example, Santa Clara County, California has faced litigation several times and paid out large settlements. The county has made significant improvements to how it provides medical care to its wards and is now considered an example of quality correctional care.

“But litigation’s power to address failures in correctional health care may soon change. Given the current Supreme Court’s willingness to overturn established precedent as evidenced by its complete reversal on Roe v. Wade last year in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center decision — an opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito — there’s reason to fear that the nation’s highest court may be looking to overturn the precedent established in Estelle v. Gamble once the right case reaches their docket.

“The chances that the parties won’t at least knock on the door at the Supreme Court is zero; either the laundry workers or Thibeault will lose at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and whoever does will try to get the nine justices to side with them before they head back to a New Haven courtroom.”

Read the full article.

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