Matt and I got a dose of reality last week.
We had been invited to an in-service training session by a local attorney who likes and supports the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.
He had recently won settlements in two cases of cruel and unusual punishment of mentally ill inmates, and he wanted to give us pointers as to when there might be violations of the 8th Amendment. But here was the shocker: He informed us that treating prisoners like animals is not bad enough...the courts won't look at those cases. The only time there is grounds for a civil suit, he said, is when the prison system treats an inmate worse than an animal. Only then is it time to consider action.
He gave an example of a mentally ill prisoner who injured his finger behind bars, and it didn't get treated properly. It got infected, he was taken to the hospital, and the finger was amputated. Not cruel and unusual punishment, said the lawyer. But when the inmate was returned to jail, he was refused his pain medication. And while suffering excruciating pain and banging on his door to get his meds, he was maced by the guard. That was the tipping point. Refusing pain medication and shooting gas into the face of the inmate for trying to get attention was a violation of the 8th amendment. The lawyer sued on behalf of the inmate and his family, and won.
This means that many of the complaints we receive do not meet the criteria of cruel and unusual punishment. True, there are many areas where one might complain of medical malpractice, and there are often cases where corrections officers behave in an unprofessional manner, but the courts ain't gonna take a look at that. It's gotta be worse!
Right now we're looking at a claim that a mentally ill inmate was not only hog-tied as punishment, but was forced to sleep on a steel slate for a week with no mattress. If those claims are true, we're going for the jugular. Not acceptable. That is treating a prisoner worse than an animal.
HFP is watching, and poised.