Anyone been watching the second season of Orange is the New Black? If you have, you know that the focus is on the practically inhumane treatment of the inmates (especially elderly inmates). For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show here’s a little glimpse into the second season. An elderly patient named Rosa with terminal cancer is denied funding for a life saving surgery. This sentences her to a slow and painful death.
In another episode, the elderly patient “Jimmy” who suffers from dementia gets “compassionate release.” This means she is stripped of her network of fellow prisoners who look after her. Also, she loses the stability of food and shelter provided by the correctional facility. As she leaves the prison, her friends discuss what they think will happen to her. With nowhere to go, she’ll end up on the streets. They bet that she will be dead in a week. While this is certainly a fictionalized account of your average American correctional facility, the horrors experienced by Rosa and Jimmy are not necessarily satirical accounts. Let’s take a look at some of the laws that have been put into place to try to stop the inhumane treatment of elderly prisoners.
Estelle vs. Gamble
In the 1976 US Supreme Court case Estelle vs. Gamble, it was determined that because the state is in custody of a prisoner’s body and can control their ability to get treatment, a duty of care is imposed on the state to provide health care. This is not a law that applies to the majority of prison inmates, particularly young inmates. However, it does become a significant rule when considering elderly inmates in prison.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in Estelle vs. Gamble indicates that prisoners should not get punished for contracting mental or physical disorders while incarcerated by not receiving treatment for their illnesses. As an elderly inmate, the chance of you developing some sort of mental or physical disorder while incarcerated increases. You should understand your rights as a prison inmate and what kind of health care you can get.
Deliberately ignoring the medical needs of any prisoner – regardless of age – constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Prisoners have the right to access to medical care, the right to proper care, and the right of professional medical judgment. If any inmate get refused these rights, it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Sick inmates require immediate health care. For example, before the Estelle vs. Gamble ruling, guards could prevent inmates in pain from going to the infirmary for several days. This is no longer the case. At least minimum medical services are required for all patients.
Providing adequate medical care for all prisoners in the country is no easy task. Prison health care providers need to balance between the health care needs of older inmates and increasing health care costs. This means that the taxpayers pay for the health care of criminals currently incarcerated. And the fact that the number of elderly inmates rises means that more money goes to health resources, medication, examinations, surgeries, etc. for inmates. The tension between providing health care and paying for it is significant. However, many positive steps have been taken in the right direction to provide health care for inmates.