Responsibility of Jails


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While individuals do lose many rights when they are imprisoned, this does not mean that they lose all jails. Since jails and prisons are the custodians of these individuals, they have many responsibilities to these individuals’ welfare.

Freedom from Cruel and Unusual Punishment

The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. While this term is not specifically defined in this historic document, the Supreme Court of the United States has held that cruel and unusual punishment may be inhumane treatment or treatment that violates a person’s basic dignity. These types of complaints are usually determined on a case-by-case basis.

Medical and Mental Health Care

An area of the law that sometimes intersects with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual treatment is the medical and mental healthcare that prisoners and inmates receive. Prisoners are entitled to receive “adequate” healthcare under federal law. State laws may impose additional burdens on jails.

The Supreme Court of the United States has held that the government has a legal obligation to provide medical and mental health care to individuals that it incarcerates. Failing to provide such care can violate the constitutional rights of the inmates and may be of such a condition that they result in cruel and unusual punishment, such as when the actions or lack of action by prison officials results in torture or a lingering death.

The standard that courts look to is whether the prison has shown a deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs of an inmate. A serious medical need is one that a physician has diagnosed as mandating treatment or one that a lay person would easily recognize required a doctor’s immediate attention. This standard usually requires showing that the prison official is aware of the inmate’s serious medical need and fails to take the reasonable steps to help the inmate. As such, this standard is much greater than negligence and requires the inmate to show that the circumstances were so harsh or inadequate that the situation rose to a violation of his or her constitutional rights.

Some state laws promulgate that a correctional facility is responsible for providing adequate care, which is usually defined as conforming to the accepted standards of practice for healthcare providers at large. Some states also require jails to adopt medical plans and screenings to ensure that prisoners and inmates receive necessary medical care.

Conditions of Jails

State laws may also dictate the hygienic and sanitary conditions of jails. For example, a state law may state the necessary items that must be included in each cell, such as a bed, toilet and sink. Additionally, state laws may insist that prisoners receive food that is provided in a sanitary manner that helps maintain good health.

Prisons and jails may be required to meet certain standards, such as complying with local health codes and building codes. They may be required to provide appropriate housing, recreation, laundry, education, programs and other aspects of life. Some courts have drawn a parallel between jails and inmates and parents and children, insisting that jails provide for the basic needs of inmates that are dependent on them.

Access to the Courts

Inmates also have a right to access the courts to complain about conditions of correctional facilities. Inmates whose rights have been violated may be able to receive a civil judgment against prison officials that have violated their rights.

Disability Rights

As with members of the general public, disabled prisoners may have the right to certain reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This right allows disabled prisoners to have the same access to facilities and programs as individuals who do not have disabilities.

Prisoner Rights

Courts generally provide great deference to prison officials when contemplating issues concerning prisoner’s rights because the prison officials are tasked with the important job of maintaining security of people who have been convicted of crimes. As such, judicial oversight is usually not required unless the prisoner’s Due Process or other rights have been violated.

Individuals who believe that their loved one is not receiving all of the rights to which he or she is entitled may consider discussing the situation with a lawyer familiar with prisoners’ rights.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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