Right to Medical Care in Prison

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Failure to provide adequate medical care continues to pose one of the greatest threats to prisoner's around the world. In some parts of the world, HIV and other prison diseases pose the greatest threat to life. In some of these places, a sentence is the functional equivalent of the death penalty.

International Law

Under United Nations' General Assembly Resolution 44/111, "Prisoners shall have access to the health services available in the country without discrimination on the grounds of their legal situation." [1]

Despite this promise, prisoner continue to suffer some of the worst health care in the world.

Specific Country Examples

United States

Prisoners are the only Americans with a Constitutional right to medical care. [2]

The right to medical care in prison is found within the 8th Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The 8th "Amendment embodies 'broad and idealistic concepts of dignity, civilized standards, humanity, and decency . . .,' against which [the Court] must evaluate penal measures." [3] Therefore, the Court has held repugnant to the 8th Amendment punishments that "involve the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain."[4] Failure to provide adequate medical results in the infliction of unnecessary suffering that is inconsistent with the 8th Amendment. [5]

A constitutional challenge to the adequacy of correctional health care is governed by the test established in Estelle v. Gamble. Under Estelle, a inmate must show that he has a serious medical need and that the institution has been deliberately indifferent to that need. [6] Satisfying this test creates a cause of action under section 1983. [7]


  1. A/RES/45/111 Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, passed 14 Dec. 1990, available at http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/45/a45r111.htm
  2. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 103 (1976)
  3. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 102 (1976)(quoting Jackson v. Bishop, 404 F.2d 571, 579 (C.A.8 1968))
  4. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 103 (1976)(quoting Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 173 (1976))
  5. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 103 (1976)
  6. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104 (1976)
  7. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 105 (1976)