Supreme Court rules on Inmates’ Rights

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?

  1. Bianca Rivera said:

    This was an excellent post, Marina. It touched upon issues that I myself have been thinking about after a question was posed towards the end of one of our most recent classes. It was the question regarding whether or not we would forfeit our human rights if we broke the law, since it is our responsibility to follow it. From my perspective, there should not be a distinction between a law-abiding citizen and a criminal because we are both humans at the end of the day. Criminals, while they have made bad choices, are not any less of a human than we are because we choose to obey the law. There are even those who break the law but no one ever finds out, and yet they still maintain their human rights. Therefore, to answer the question you posed, both aforementioned cases are of equal importance and urgency from a human rights perspective. I am especially pleased to know that the rights are protected under the Eighth Amendment.

    I also do not think it should matter if tax-payer dollars are allocated for a transgender inmate, but rather it should be more important from the overall human rights standpoint to provide a decent quality of life for anyone. Transgendered inmates are not any less human than other inmates or Americans in general.

    This post regarding inmate rights also reminds me of an article I stumbled upon last week regarding China and their practice of harvesting the organs of prisoners on death-row. Due to an excess demand of organs it has been said that China speeds up the process of inmates on death-row, reject their wishes to appeal, and forcibly have them agree to giving away their organs in order to provide for the rest of the nation. An estimated 65% of organ “donations” come from prisoners as the article states ( As inmates on death-row is it still their right to determine what is done to their body, especially when the intention is for the greater good of the country?

  2. philipalcabes said:

    These two thought-provoking commentaries by Marina and Bianca raise a question: what is the link between human rights and justice? If human rights are universal, then surely even someone who has committed a crime is still entitled to his rights. Maybe it’s easy, on that account, to decide that it would be wrong for someone who has been condemned to death to be required to suffer when he is executed. Or that it’s wrong for an inmate to be denied due process (appealing his condemnation) in order to kill him sooner and provide vital organs for transplanation.

    But harder decisions abound. On a human rights view, how should we look at replying to murder with murder — that is, executing a convicted killer? Or replying to the sale of banned substances (cocaine, primarily) with imprisonment for years or decades?

    If we think these punishments can be justified on the grounds of civic order, then we might ask questions about HOW they are administered from a human rights standpoint. It’s okay to sentence to death a man who has raped and murdered a child, some would say, but he has to be put to death without suffering, and he has to have decent medical care while he’s waiting to be killed.

    But others would question the assumption that this form of justice is in concert with human rights. They might say that it’s just wrong to sentence someone to death, or to decades in isolation — that it’s not real justice, just revenge.

    Does a human rights approach guide us in thinking about administering society in a just way? Or is it primarily useful for knowing how to make people comfortable after they have committed some offense against public order, and been adjudicated?

  3. noakrawczyk said:

    The questions arising from the relationship between rights and justice and of the human rights of criminals are extremely interesting issues that I think are often ignored. I myself have been struggling a lot with these issues throughout this semester. While researching for my paper on the rights of drug addicts, I have been reading a lot about the perception of who “deserves” rights and who doesn’t. It seems to be that society finds it easy to accept that once someone has committed a crime they no longer deserve many of the rights they normally would have because they are no longer a good person or citizen. This is an easy perception to understand because the criminal has supposedly voluntarily sacrificed these rights by committing the crime. However, when this concept is looked at more in-depth it becomes very complex and controversial. As was brought up in the above posts, should people who commit crimes be stripped of any rights at all if they are still human and were born with certain rights? I think few would have a problem with taking away certain rights of prison inmates such as the right to vote. It can be easily argued that a criminal should no longer have the right to participate in a democracy because he or she has broken its rules. However, even this becomes problematic when we see how people who have committed minor crimes (such as teenagers convicted for possession of marijuana) can lose their right to vote even after release from prison and become largely excluded from the democratic process and thus their major right to participate in society. Conversely, I think it is generally agreed upon that even people who commit major and violent crimes should still maintain their right to not be tortured in prison because this is considered to be inhumane.

    As we have seen in class, the right to health is often less clear than certain political and civil rights. It is therefore difficult to evaluate to what extent people should be granted their right to health when they have committed crimes. Clearly, prisoners lose many of their rights to health in prison; drug addicts, for example, are often thrown in a cell with a bucket and expected to go through drug-withdrawal without any pain ease. But on the other hand, should criminals deserve the best healthcare in prison when certain law-abiding citizens cannot even access it because they can’t afford it? Do all types of criminals deserve the same rights in prison? For example, should a drug addict who only hurt him or herself by possession of the drug be treated equally to a criminal who has hurt another person in their crime? In my International Justice class we talked about the tribunals against perpetrators of war crimes in the Rwandan Genocide. Defendants in these tribunal prisons were carefully granted full defendant rights and were thus provided with decent housing conditions and even access to AZT for people who were HIV+. But was it just for people who participated in large-scale genocide to receive AIDS treatment when thousands of victims in Rwanda were simultaneously suffering the consequences of the genocide and widespread HIV infection without any medication?

  4. aakselrod said:

    The consideration of how the rights of prisoners compare with those of people who are not detained is definitely fascinating. A document titled “A Pocketbook of International Human Rights Standards for Prison Officials” published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights highlights several entitlements of prisoners to the access to healthcare and medicine:

    “ Prisoners and all detained persons have the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”

    “Prisoners should have free access to the health services available in the country.”

    While it seems logical that the health services are free (as prisoners are unable to earn money while detained), there is something unsettling about the fact that, even when considering the United States, there are thousands of people who have not committed a single heinous crime, who cannot afford even the most basic healthcare. It seems as if the state, when taking away one’s liberty, automatically takes on the responsibility of maintaining the welfare of the detainees, which, oftentimes, results in an overall higher standard of living. Is this because in a contained prison environment, it is easy to find someone to blame (the prison, the state) for human rights infringements, therefore, requiring higher standards for some of the entitlements?


  5. Marina Erlikh said:

    Alla brings up an interesting point; is there a greater sense of accountability in a prison setting? An inmate denied medical service and subsequently dying is much more likely to cause media outrage than a law-abiding, unemployed person with no access to healthcare( such is the story of millions of Americans).
    It’s an unsettling scenario, but what will stop people from committing petty crimes and landing themselves in jail for a few years in order to gain access to healthcare?

  6. philipalcabes said:

    In the US, prisoners, and even jail inmates, have been guaranteed access to health care since 1976. That’s when the Supreme Court found, in Estelle v. Gamble, that failing to provide medical care to inmates violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Yet, it’s hard to find evidence of many people getting themselves sent to prison merely in order to get care. It surely happens, as this report notes:

    But there doesn’t seem to be a mass movement of people into lock-ups or prisons solely for health care.

    Why don’t more people get themselves arrested in order to get health care? Jails and prisons are unhappy places to be, first of all. The care, although required by law, is sometimes very spotty, improper, or hard to obtain. Seeking care for certain conditions within a jail or prison can mark a person as infectious, demented, or simply weak, and for some inmates in some settings could invite discrimination or even violence.

    The Correctional Association of NY is a nonprofit organization that inspects jail and prison conditions and aims to create more decent and just correctional systems. Their information on prison health care is here:

    While the suggestion that inmates’ deaths are more likely to cause media outrage than the death of poor person who has no health insurance makes sense, how often do we hear news stories about prisons at all? America incarcerates people at a much higher rate than any other country — about 2 million people are in American prisons and jails, amounting to about 1% of the adult population. As Marina’s original post points out, we hear about prison health when there is outrage about inmates having access to hormone treatment, or debate over how painlessly the death penalty should be exacted. But the story of incarceration, and the conditions under which 2 million Americans are incarcerated, isn’t such a popular topic.

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