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February 8, 2022

"Prison Medical Deaths and Qualified Immunity"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Andrea Armstrong now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The defense of qualified immunity for claims seeking monetary damages for constitutionally inadequate medical care for people who are incarcerated is misguided.  According to the U.S. Department of Justice, medical illness is the leading cause of death of people incarcerated in prisons and jails across the United States.  Qualified immunity in these cases limits accountability for carceral actors, thereby limiting incentives for improvements in the delivery of constitutionally adequate medical care.  The qualified immunity defense also compounds other existing barriers, such as higher subjective intent standards and the Prison Litigation Reform Act, to asserting legal accountability of prison and jail administrators. In addition, the defense is not appropriate because medical care decisions by carceral actors are fundamentally different than traditional qualified immunity cases.  Traditional qualified immunity cases usually involve discretionary decisions that are one-off, emergency, binary choices made by a single actor or unit of actors.  In contrast, medical decisions in carceral settings are often serial, ongoing, and usually involve multiple decision makers, sometimes acting beyond their area of expertise.  These significant differences between medical decisions in carceral settings and traditional qualified immunity decisions illustrate the practical difficulties for incarcerated plaintiffs and their families in holding prisons accountable for violating the U.S. Constitution.  Recent developments refining the doctrine may lessen the negative impact of the defense on these civil rights claims, but they also do not address the core disconnect between the rationales justifying qualified immunity and its application in cases of severe injury or death from inadequate carceral healthcare.

February 8, 2022 at 08:58 AM | Permalink


Unquestionably a tricky area. If I could design a system from scratch, ignoring existing rules and laws, whatever they may be, the degree of immunity would depend on why the person was in prison.

So if someone made an error in procuring medical care for (say) Boston Marathon Bomber Djokar Tsarnaev, I would want them to have a high degree of legal immunity. Tsarnaev dug his own grave, so to speak.

But if someone were to somehow find their way to Federal Prison for a misdemeanor, then it would be reasonable to expect a high standard of medical care.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Feb 8, 2022 3:48:36 PM

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