You can sue the county jail

At any given time a few of my clients are in jail. Every defendant experiences the humilation of being booked in and bonded out, but a few are trapped in the county jail for extended periods of time. One things counties hate spending money on is inmate health care. Providng free health care for “criminals” is not a winning political theme.

I get a few questions from inmates and their families on what to do if they don’t receive proper medical attention. I advise them to ask for a nurse as frequently as possible, and in writing, until something is done. Each county jail has different policies for dropping off prescriptions etc. But the jail is ultimately responsible for providing a minimum level of treatment for their inmates.

What happens when a county inmate is denied medical care, and suffers irreperable harm as a result? Recently Dallas county’s notoriously mismanaged and dangerous jail met the working end of a 1983 civil suit. The defendant won at trial, and the county appealed. Dallas would rather pay lawyers than pay an inmate they almost killed.

Here is the lowdown on Shepherd vs. Dallas County; a recent decision from the 5th Circuit (circuit as in Federal, not State) court of Appeals.

Stanley Shepherd was a “pre trial detainee”. That’s a nice way of saying he was being incarcerated even without a finding of guilt. Stanley had a history of hypertension and was being treated with Clonidine. Dallas county jailers were aware of this condition, but refused to provide him with the required daily prescription. Stanley suffered a stroke, and is now confined to a wheelchair because Dallas was too cheap and/or incompetent to treat Mr. Shepherd. From the opinon-

For the next seven weeks, Shepherd received no medical treatment. His
medication was not dispensed as prescribed, and no medical provider checked
his blood pressure. The record shows that he and his wife, who was aware of the
situation, complained to jail staff and medical personnel about the lack of
treatment. His wife, in particular, repeatedly expressed the concern that
Shepherd would have a stroke if he did not receive his medication regularly.

Stanley filed a federal 1983 suit challenging the conditions at the jail.

What’s a 1983 lawsuit?
1983 lawsuits are federal suits based upon constitutional violations. For county inmates there are two main causes of action. From the opinion-

Constitutional challenges by pretrial detainees may be brought under two
alternative theories: as an attack on a “condition of confinement” or as an
“episodic act or omission.” Hare v. City of Corinth, Miss., 74 F.3d 633, 644–45
(5th Cir. 1996) (en banc). If the plaintiff has properly stated a claim as an attack
on conditions of confinement, he is relieved from the burden of demonstrating
a municipal entity’s or individual jail official’s actual intent to punish because,
as discussed below, intent may be inferred from the decision to expose a detainee
to an unconstitutional condition.

In this case, Shepherd showed that the chronically mismanaged and understaffed jail created a condition where inmates were denied basic medical care. This wasn’t hard. Dallas has historically had one of the worst run jails in the country.

1983 lawsuits can be an effective way to pierce the veil of sovereign immunity state and local governments so often grant themselves. But for the prospect of writing more checks, you can bet local pols would remain deaf to the concerns of pre trial detainees and their appalling treatment.

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