Prison Healthcare: Should Prisoners Have The Right To Sue For Poor Medical Care?


Last Tuesday, a jury awarded $17.5 million to a diabetic man who is now confined to a wheelchair after New York City police refused to give him insulin while he was in jail. Jose Vargas, 43, went into a diabetic seizure on the floor of his cell following 58 hours of pleading with jailers to give him the insulin. He is now permanently confined to a wheelchair in a nursing home with diminished motor, mental, and coordination skills due to the incident. $10 million dollars of the money New York City is ordered to pay is expected to go towards Vargas’ future nursing home care.

Vargas was arrested in September 2006 on felony charges concerning criminal sale of a controlled substance. Although Vargas has a bag containing his insulin and needles, police took away the bag following the arrest. Vargas told police that he needed the bag while being transported to central booking but was ignored. Although he repeatedly asked for the insulin and soon became shaky, dehydrated, and anxious, he was not given any insulin for over two days. After Vargas suffered one seizure at the jail, he was transported to a hospital where he continued to have multiple seizures.

New York City’s legal department stated that they “were disappointed with the verdict and expect to file an appeal based on a number of legal and factual issues. Vargas later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor criminal facilitation of a drug sale.

This case presents many questions as to the legal rights prisoners should be afforded. What level of medical care should prisoners receive? And if the level of care they receive is inadequate, should they have the right to sue? I think the answer is clear in a case such as this, where prison staff blatantly failed to care for a prisoner, ignored a serious medical condition, and consequently, the prisoner suffered serious and permanent damage. Central booking should always have a doctor present and should screen all prisoners and find out what medication they are taking. In cases, such as Vargas’ I believe whole-heartedly that legal action is justified. Although I understand why police took away his insulin and needles, as he was being booked on drug related charges, once Vargas told them about his diabetes, they should have investigated his request for medication, and given him the insulin that he needed. I am well aware that inmates may lie about having a medical condition, or otherwise try to abuse any kind of medical screening process during booking. I am also aware that it would be expensive to always have a doctor on-site. However, I think it is necessary, and it would cost a whole lot less than having to pay million dollar settlements to inmates that have sued after suffering medical problems while imprisoned.