by Jason Yanofski, MD
Dr. Yanofski is a forensic psychiatrist with the San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, California.

Psychiatry (Edgemont) 2010;7(10):41–44

Funding: There was no funding for the development and writing of this article.

Financial Disclosures: The author has no conflicts of interest relevant to the content of this article.

Key Words: Correctional psychiatry, landmark cases, forensic psychiatry, forced medication, involuntary transfer

Abstract: This article reviews the history of prisoners’ rights with a focus on mental health treatment. The most common method of lawsuit, “1983 claims,” will be explained, along with legislation designed to counter the flood of prisoner claims that started in the 1960s. Relevant landmark cases will be reviewed, including Cooper v. Pate, Vitek v. Jones, and Harper v. Washington. Finally, current class-action lawsuits against the state of California will be highlighted.

Primer on the Federal Court System

In order to understand how inmates gained the right to sue correctional facilities, we will start with a review of the federal court system.

Article III, Section I, of the United States Constitution requires Congress to establish a system of federal courts. Federal court judges are appointed by the President, confirmed by the Senate, and serve a life term. There are 94 federal district courts, 13 federal courts of appeals, and one Supreme Court of the United States.

District courts are the lowest federal courts and function as trial courts with either a judge or a jury. These courts hear a wide variety of civil and criminal cases.

Courts of appeals, or circuit courts, review matters appealed from the district courts in their region. Federal circuit courts have mandatory jurisdiction, meaning that they are legally required to hear cases that are presented to them. Circuit courts do not review facts of a case; they look for errors based on federal laws. Appeals courts usually use panels of three judges who vote to affirm, reverse, or modify decisions of the district court.

The Supreme Court of the United States, located in Washington, DC, is the highest court in the nation, so its rulings are final. It is made up of one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices.

Because the Supreme Court does not have the resources to review all appeals, legislative acts have established that it is not mandated to review all cases that are presented to it. Rather, the Supreme Court decides, based on its own criteria, whether it will review or deny cases.[1,2]

Today, if an attorney wants the Supreme Court to review the decision of a federal or state court, he or she files a “petition for writ of certiorari.” Four Supreme Court justices must agree in order for a writ of certiorari to be accepted, and only about one percent of petitions are actually granted. The most common reasons that the Supreme Court will review a case are because two different federal appeals courts have made contradictory rulings, because the highest state court has challenged that a federal law is unconstitutional, or because a federal appeals court has challenged a state or federal law as unconstitutional.

Not Enough Rights for Prisoners

For the first half of the 20th century, inmates did not have the ability to protest against unfair treatment, and they were considered to be slaves of the prison. Courts believed that their role was only to sentence criminals to be incarcerated and that they should not be involved with what happened to criminals once their term began.[3,4] This meant that correctional departments had complete authority over handling inmates within their prisons and whether or not they were afforded any rights at all.

During the 1960s, advocates began to fight for the rights of various groups within society. This was exemplified by a new wave of feminism, and major victories were won for African Americans.[5–8] In a 1964 United States Supreme Court case from Illinois, Cooper v. Pate, an inmate successfully sued a prison for the first time when he asserted his constitutional right to purchase Muslim reading material.[9]

The key piece of legislation behind this victory was Title 42 of the United States Code, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which was written more than 90 years earlier in response to actions of the Klu Klux Klan. The relevant part of this act was Section 1983 which stated the following:

“Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any state or territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.”[10]

This means that in order to bring a successful “1983 claim,” an inmate must show that the person he or she is suing was acting under the “color of law” (i.e., state employee at a prison who misused his or her authority) and that there was a violation of a right guaranteed to him or her in the Constitution.

The Cooper ruling set a precedent that prisoners could use Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act to challenge how they were being treated in prison. There have been tens of thousands of prisoner “1983 claims” (most commonly citing violations of the First, Eighth, and 14th Amendments) (Table 1).

Filing suit under Section 1983 is advantageous for prisoners because this federal claim does not require first exhausting all mechanisms at the state level in order to move forward. Successful prisoners can collect damages and have attorney fees recovered. Also, rulings in 1983 claims result in determination of rights (declaratory relief) and protection of such rights (injunctive relief).[11-13]

Vitek v. Jones

Vitek v. Jones (1980) is a landmark correctional mental health case and continues to be relevant for psychiatrists today.[14] In this case, an inmate challenged that a Nebraska statute was unconstitutional because it stated that the Director of Correctional Services could transfer a prisoner to a mental hospital if a designated physician or psychologist found the patient to be suffering from a “mental disease or defect” that could not be properly treated in the prison.

The United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the prisoner, opining that involuntary transfer to a mental hospital is protected under the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment. The inmate’s liberty was at stake because, even though he had been sentenced to incarceration, being sent to a psychiatric hospital could have led to stigma and involuntary treatment. The court held that involuntary transfer of an inmate to a psychiatric hospital shall require the following:

1. Adequate notice
2. An adversarial hearing before an independent decision maker
3. Written statement of the evidence on which the decision was based
4. Appointed counsel if the inmate cannot afford counsel on his or her own.

Too Many Rights for Prisoners

In reaction to a wave of prisoner lawsuits, the United States Supreme Court decided in Turner v. Safley (1987) that, due to security needs of prisons, a lower standard of review for the constitutionality of prison regulations was acceptable.[15] Prisoners’ rights must be balanced against the needs and safety of the institution that holds them, and general safety should supersede the rights of individuals. Areas where prisoners’ rights may need to be infringed upon include freedom from body and cell searches, the right to hearings prior to administrative segregation, and the freedom to communicate with prisoners at other prisons.

In the landmark case Harper v. Washington (1990), this lesser standard was used when it was ruled that it was acceptable to give psychiatric medications to prisoners without their consent based only on internal review—a hearing in front of a judge was not constitutionally required.[16] Interestingly, this ruling, along with other rulings that protected patients in psychiatric hospitals from being forcibly medicated,[17,18] created a lower threshold for involuntary psychiatric treatment in prisons than in hospitals (Might the Vitek ruling have been different if tried today?).

Despite measures by the courts to increase the threshold for prisoner claims, inmate victories continued to result in mandates for sweeping changes far beyond correction of the specific violations. The Prison Litigation Reform Act (1996) attempted to counter this pattern and stated that a federal court “shall not grant or approve any prospective relief unless the court finds that such relief is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the federal right, and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the federal right.”[19]

Current California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Lawsuits

Even in present day, prisoners continue to use Section 1983 to make constitutional claims against prisons.

The class-action suit Coleman v. Schwarzenegger resulted in a 1994 ruling that California prisons’ mental healthcare was so bad that it constituted “cruel and unusual punishment,” violating the Eighth Amendment.[20] This was followed by the 2001 class action lawsuit Plata v. Schwarzenegger, which resulted in the same finding related to all medical care.[21] The finding was based on an assessment of multiple deficiencies, such as inadequate screening for medical problems, inadequate access to medical care, poor organization of records, untimely responses to emergencies, and insufficient medical staffing.

California was ordered to improve conditions, but in 2005, the federal court found that conditions had not improved. As a result, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) medical department was put in receivership, meaning that they lost the autonomy to govern themselves.

A federal investigation that followed found that the prison system was overcrowded, housing about 200 percent of its capacity, and that psychiatric care could not be improved until the overcrowdedness was resolved. The Plata and Coleman suits were then merged, and in 2009, a three-judge court ordered that California submit a plan to safely reduce CDCR’s population to 137.5 percent of capacity within two years.[22]

In January 2010, the court accepted a plan submitted by California and ordered it to be put into effect. California is currently appealing the mandate of its plan, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari on June 14, 2010.

Essentially, California will need to argue that, even though prison overpopulation was determined to be the cause of a violation of the Constitution, the court’s order to correct it was also unconstitutional. We will have to wait and see what happens.

1. 43 Stat. 936 (Judiciary Act of 1925).
2. 28 U.S.C. § 1257 (Supreme Court Case Selections Act of 1998).
3. Ruffin v. Commonwealth, 62 Va. 790 (1871).
4. Stroud v. Swope, F. 2d. 850, 9th Circuit (1951).
5. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
6. 78 Stat. 241 (Civil Rights Act of 1964).
7. 42 U.S.C. § 1973–1973aa-6 (Voting rights Act of 1965).
8. 42U.S.C.A. §§ 3601-3631 (Fair Housing Act of 1968).
9. Cooper v. Pate, 78 U.S. 546 (1964).
10. 42 USC 1983 (Civil Rights Act of 1871).
11. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 97 S.Ct. 285 (1976).
12. Farmer v. Brennan, 114 S.Ct. 1970 (1994).
13. Baxstrom v. Herold, 383 U.S. 107, 86 S.Ct. 760 (1966).
14. Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S 480, 100 S.Ct. 1254 (1980).
15. Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987).
16. Washington v. Harper 494 U.S. 210 (1990).
17. Rennie v. Klein, 462 F. Supp. 1131 (1978).
18. Rogers v. Okin, 738 F. 2d 1 (1984).
19. 18 U.S.C. § 3626 (Prison Reform Act of 1995).
20. Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, Dist. Court, ED California (2006).
21. Plata v. Schwarzenegger, 603 F. 3d 1088 (2010).
22. In the United States District Courts for Eastern District of California and the Northern District of California United States District Court Composed of Three Judges Pursuant to Section 2284, Title 28 United States Code: Order to Reduce Prison Population.