Prison Health Care on Trial

September 29, 2015

In a longstanding ACLU lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), a federal judge strongly criticized its failure to provide adequate medical and mental health care. 

In 2006, following the death from dehydration of a mentally ill prisoner who had been chained naked to a concrete slab for four days in an unventilated cell, Judge Richard Enslen ruled that MDOC was practicing torture in violation of the Eighth Amendment. 

The judge appointed an independent medical monitor and threatened a fine of one million dollars plus $10,000 per day if the MDOC did not fill staff vacancies to provide basic medical and mental-health care to prisoners.  After Judge Enslen retired, the case was reassigned to Judge Robert Jonker, who ruled in 2009 that prison officials were no longer “deliberately indifferent” to prisoners’ serious medical and mental-health needs. 

In 2011 the Sixth Circuit upheld his decision.  The district court then resumed jurisdiction over the case and in June 2013 held a two-week trial on the state’s motion to terminate the case in its entirety. 

Over the course of trial the plaintiffs presented chilling evidence of what life is like in prison for the ever-expanding population of sick and elderly prisoners who need prescription medications and multiple appointments with nurses and doctors, suffer from chronic health conditions, are facing end-of-life care, and are otherwise dealing with extremely grave and complex medical conditions that a prison system is generally ill-equipped to handle. 

In September 2015 Judge Jonker ruled that the medical care the state was providing to Michigan prisoners had improved and was no longer unconstitutional.  The decision effectively brought an end to federal oversight over medical care in Michigan’s prisons. 

(Hadix v. Caruso; ACLU Attorney Dan Korobkin; co-counsel Elizabeth Alexander and Patricia Streeter.)