From Health to Humanity: Re-Reading Estelle v. Gamble after Brown v. Plata
5 Pages Posted: 26 Oct 2013
Date Written: April 1, 2013
Formal recognition that the Eighth Amendment required prisons to provide adequate medical care to prisoners is generally traced to the Supreme Court’s 1976 Estelle v. Gamble decision. There, the Court squarely held that failure to provide medical care to an incarcerated person violated the Eighth Amendment. Justice Marshall explained that the denial of needed medical care might, in the most unfortunate cases, cause grave suffering akin to torture, and the infliction of such ‘‘unnecessary suffering is inconsistent with contemporary standards of decency.’’ Moreover, the Court held that where prison officials are ‘‘deliberately indifferent’’ to serious medical needs, they cause the kind of ‘‘wanton infliction of pain’’ that gives rise to liability under federal civil rights statutes when done ‘‘under color of law.’’
These points have been favorably cited by the Supreme Court repeatedly since 1976, and were never in dispute when the State of California appealed the injunction reducing prison population handed down by the special three-judge court in Coleman/Plata v. Schwarzenegger (now, Brown). As a legal matter, the Supreme Court’s 2011 Brown v. Plata decision seems to have added little to that precedent, making law instead on the interpretation of the statutory Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA).
This essay argues that nonetheless Brown takes the principles articulated in Estelle and reads them through the prism of the modern carceral context, a context described by criminologists and now even the New York Times as one of ‘‘mass incarceration.’’ While the Supreme Court’s restatement of its central Eighth Amendment prison health care principles in Brown v. Plata did not necessarily change the doctrinal parameters of those principles, the Court signaled its willingness to support district courts in enforcing them in a more direct and consequential way. In doing so, the Court appeared to strengthen the principles of Estelle, linking them more closely to concepts of human dignity.
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