Avoiding deliberate indifference in corrections

Are you familiar with your agency’s policies that give you the tools to aid or protect vulnerable inmates?

Let’s focus on the deliberate indifference to an inmate’s serious medical needs. Inmates have a constitutional right to adequate medical care. A correctional facility and its employees cannot intentionally or recklessly deny an inmate medical care.  

Deliberate indifference in the context of corrections typically involves facility personnel refusing or failing to address an inmate’s serious medical need or failing to protect an inmate from a substantial risk of harm.

This means you cannot prevent access to care or ignore a physician’s order and prescriptions. Nor can you deny someone medical care when doing so causes or perpetuates pain. There is no penological purpose for that, and it violates the Constitution – whether or not the inmate has been convicted.  

One example we’ve recently seen play out in courts across the United States involves an inmate’s access to medications for opioid use disorder or OUD. Such medications may be necessary to manage withdrawal from opioids. And some patients need to be on OUD medications long-term. In fact, you’ve probably seen inmates admitted to your facility with a prescription for an OUD medication, such as methadone or suboxone.  

Courts have found that withdrawal from opiate addiction can cause significant pain and medical risk. Courts have also held that denying or significantly delaying OUD medications could be considered deliberate indifference to an inmate’s medical needs. That’s right, a deliberate indifference claim! 

When we take inmates and detainees into our facilities, we become their caretakers. Are you familiar with your agency’s policies that give you the tools to aid or protect vulnerable inmates? Do you know how to respond to an inmate in crisis or distress, such as one experiencing opioid withdrawal?  

Knowing your agency's policy and procedures on these issues will help you easily recognize your responsibilities regarding an inmate’s health and safety. Which in turn will help you avoid deliberate indifference to an inmate’s serious medical need. 

And that’s Today’s Tip from Lexipol. Gordon Graham signing off. 

For more tips from Gordon, click here.

RELATED: Advancing substance use disorder treatment in correctional facilities

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