As they quarantine at home, some celebrities have made jokes about feeling like they are in prison. In response, many people have justifiably pointed out that being confined to a 10,000 square foot mansion is not comparable to prison. However, even for those of us who cannot leave our more modest homes, we can feel quite confined.
Nevertheless, we are not prisoners because prison is a lot more confining than can be understood by anyone who has not been incarcerated. Because of close quarters, inmates are precluded from social distancing from each other, and the virus has spread through some prisons in our state faster than a state trooper pulling over a speeding car.
The Supreme Court has held that prisons do not have to be “comfortable.” Nonetheless, inmates may not face cruel or unusual punishment. The law has determined that cruel or unusual punishment is punishment that is inhumane or violates the basic concept of a person’s dignity. For instance, access to clean water, food and a toilet as well as placement in a room with a temperature that it not excessively cold or hot would be considered parts of the basic concept of a person’s dignity.
When it comes to medical care, prisoners are entitled to “adequate” care. Unfortunately, the definition of “adequate” is obviously difficult to discern.
However, in 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that if a prison official knows that inmates face a substantial risk of serious harm and does not at least reasonably attempt to overcome that risk, that prison official may have legal liability. The Supreme Court did not say that budget concerns could not be a part of determining whether a prison official is reasonable in his or her actions.
Courts have been slow to decide whether this virus presents a universal, substantial risk of serious harm. However, some federal courts have begun to recognize the responsibility of prison officials to take at least some meaningful steps to protect from the virus those inmates with serious medical conditions or disabilities (due to those inmates’ heightened risk of death from the virus). In other words, those courts have found that the virus is a serious harm, and that actions of those with control over others should decrease the risk so that the risk is less substantial.
Some government officials outside Ohio have simply released some inmates early. Of course, understandably, due to old habits or due to the simple need to survive outside prison (i.e. few businesses seek to hire convicted felons), many of those inmates committed new crimes upon release.
Ohio’s government and prison officials appear to be doing their best under the circumstances of not having unlimited space and unlimited budgets. It is pretty clear that sick inmates with the highest fevers should be (and generally are being) treated medically. Because the virus is clearly deadly, the law requires, to the extent possible in light of limited resources, that sick inmates and healthy inmates (particularly those at high risk) be segregated from each other.
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at Lee@LeeSchroeder.com or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.