The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently issued an important decision on the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  In this case, the issue was the right to medical care for prisoners with life-threatening illnesses.  When the State takes control of a person's life in order to punish them, it also takes on a responsibility to treat them humanely.  

Courts are generally reluctant to second-guess the level of medical care to which prisoners are entitled, and this case seemed to be following that pattern.  The inmate alleged that a number of jail and prison medical providers refused to pay close enough attention to his escalating medical problems, which became life threatening.  The trial court here in Maine found in favor of all of all of the defendants before holding a trial, but the appeals court ruled that it was premature to decide the case against one of the defendants--a physician's assistant from York County Jail.  Now. the inmate will have a chance to pursue trial against that defendant.

The legal standard for proving that a jail or prison failed to provide adequate medical care was not changed by this decision.  According to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1994 decision in Farmer v. Brennan, inmates must demonstrate that the corrections officials were "deliberately indifferent" to a serious risk of harm or death.  But, as Cathy Connors notes in her always-illuminating appellate law blog, Maine Appeals, the case does present an interesting way of thinking about the increasingly common practice of outsourcing prison services, including medical care.  We expect private companies to try to make a profit, but the possibility of a profit motive does present an opportunity for prisoners to question why certain care may have been delayed or denied.  That was enough of a concern for the appeals court to send the case back for further development.