MA Court Defends the Rights of the Prisoner
by The Opportunity Agenda, Wed Jul 23, 2008 at 08:55:44 AM EDT
Last month the Appeals Court of Massachusetts issued two decisions regarding prisoner access to health care, both of which have vast implications for prisoner rights. Through their rulings, the court affirmed two critical American values: redemption, the belief that humans are evolving beings who warrant the chance for rehabilitation when they falter, and healthcare as a human right. The cases, Sullivan v. Correctional Medical Servs. et al. No. 07-P-964 72, 2008 WL 2552982 (Mass. App. Jun. 27, 2008) and Kilburn v. Dept. of Corrections et al., No. 07-P-987, 2008 WL 2566382 (Mass. App. Jun. 30, 2008) concerned claims of negligence due to poor dental care provided to prisoners by private health care contractors hired by the state. Part of the case for the prisoners' claims rested on an appeal to third-party beneficiary rights. Third parties in contracts have the right to sue if they can prove that they are the intended beneficiaries of the contract and are reliant on the contract. Through their rulings, Massachusetts courts suggest that prisoners have standing as third party beneficiaries and can thus sue private health care providers despite their exclusion from the contract between the state and these private contractors.
In Kilburn v. Dept. of Corrections the Court ruled that the state cannot simultaneously deny responsibility for those healthcare duties delegated to its contractors and claim that those contracts were not meant to benefit the prisoners. The fact that the state would make this argument to begin with is reflective of the larger shortcomings of the prison-industrial complex. By contracting out the care of prisoners to private entities, the state claims that it is not liable for inadequate care provided by these groups. The Appeals Court of Massachusetts took a stand for the right of prisoners to proper healthcare, and more generally to fair treatment, by stressing the state's responsibility in prisoner care. It went further to argue that inmates' lack of standing to sue as a third party beneficiary of the contract does not make the state immune from liability or free from responsibility. Simply because prisoners do not have the means to raise claims does not absolve the state of its duties.
While the decisions do not explicitly grant prisoners third-party beneficiary rights, they mark an important
step in this direction. They document the receptiveness of the court third-party claims in government contracts on the part of prisoners. Moreover the rulings affirm that the state cannot divorce itself from its responsibility to prisoners. Practicing redemption means providing the conditions that allow people to develop, to rebuild, and to take full responsibility for their lives after misfortune or mistakes. Through its decisions, the court asserted the state's own responsibility in providing these conditions for prisoners. This particular case concerns dental care, but it opens the door for an invigorated conversation about the fundamental human rights of those people behind bars, and the responsibility of the state in caring for those prisoners such that they may one day reenter society and have the opportunity to achieve their own, full potentials.