In the past month, two distinct court cases regarding inmates’ rights have been decided by the Supreme Court. Both cases found in favor of extending inmates’ rights on the grounds that the existing condition was a violation of the Eight Amendment, which protects all Americans from cruel and unusual punishment.
On March 27, 2012, 21 death row inmates won the federal case Beaty V. Food and Drug Administration, which will ban the use of sodium thiopental as an anesthetic given prior to lethal injections. The federal judge ruled that the drug (which is manufactured overseas) was unapproved and misbranded and that the FDA violated its own rules by allowing it to be distributed in the US without adequate testing of efficacy and safety. The inmates’ attorneys claimed that the drug may cause “anesthesia-awareness,” during which the anesthetized may experience pain, suffocation, or cardiac arrest.
Also in March of 2012, the Supreme Court ruled against reinstating a Wisconsin law which would ban state-funded hormone therapy and sex-change operations for its transgender inmates (Smith V. Fields). The court ruled that because doctors had deemed hormone therapy as medically necessary for patients with gender identity disorder, banning such therapy was a violation of the Eight Amendment.
The former is an example of a right we generally believe all people should have: the right to die a painless death. We have legal protection against cruel and unusual punishment in place to protect each and every one of us in the event that we are incarcerated and sentenced to death.
Globally, there are widely varying views on both inmates’ rights and the legality/morality of capital punishment. In the US, individual states decide whether or not they have the death penalty. Interestingly, we tend to discuss human rights universally, when it isn’t even a national concept.
The latter is a human rights question of a different flavor. Should inmates enjoy the right to hormone therapy and/or sex-change operations – medical interventions that many transgender individuals outside of the prison system do not have the funds for. Is it reasonable to protect the rights of a prisoner to what is widely perceived as an elective procedure more than the rights of a law-abiding transgender individual suffering from gender identity disorder? Hormone therapy withdrawal has been found to result in higher rates of anxiety disorder, depression, and suicide attempts–so it can be considered a form of punishment to force inmates off of this therapy. However, is it cruel and unusual punishment to fail to provide a sex-change operation to a transgender inmate?
In other words, are the aforementioned cases of equal importance and urgency, from a human rights perspective?
Ultimately, it is impossible to divorce the economic concern from the human rights discussion. Especially in considering the right to hormone therapy or sex-change operations, it would be irresponsible to support it relentlessly without considering who will be paying for it. Should tax-payer funds be allocated for the purpose of maintaining a decent quality of life for a transgender inmate suffering from gender identity disorder? Is that something we can consider to be a basic and essential human right?