Providing Ethical and Humane Care to Hospitalized, Incarcerated Patients With COVID-19

Am J Hosp Palliat Care. 2021 Jun;38(6):731-733. doi: 10.1177/1049909121994313. Epub 2021 Feb 10.


The COVID-19 pandemic is devastating the health of hundreds of thousands of people who live and work in U.S. jails and prisons. Due to dozens of large outbreaks in correctional facilities, tens of thousands of seriously ill incarcerated people are receiving medical care in the community hospital setting. Yet community clinicians often have little knowledge of the basic rights and ethical principles governing care of seriously ill incarcerated patients. Such patients are legally entitled to make their own medical decisions just like non-incarcerated patients, and retain rights to appoint surrogate decision makers and make advance care plans. Wardens, correctional officers, and prison health care professionals should not make medical decisions for incarcerated patients and should not be asked to do so. Dying incarcerated patients should be offered goodbye visits with their loved ones, and patients from federal prisons are legally entitled to them. Community health care professionals may need to advocate for this medically vulnerable hospitalized patient population to receive ethically appropriate, humane care when under their care in community hospitals. If ethical care is being obstructed, community health care professionals should contact the prison's warden and medical director to explain their concerns and ask questions. If necessary, community clinicians should involve a hospital's ethics committee, leadership, and legal counsel. Correctional medicine experts and legal advocates for incarcerated people can also help community clinicians safeguard the rights of incarcerated patients.

Keywords: Covid-19 in prisons; correctional health; healthcare decision-making; healthcare decision-making rights of vulnerable populations; prisoners; prisons; rights of incarcerated patients.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • COVID-19 / nursing*
  • Humans
  • Palliative Care / ethics*
  • Prisoners / psychology
  • Prisoners / statistics & numerical data*
  • Prisons / organization & administration*
  • Terminal Care / ethics*
  • United States
  • Vulnerable Populations / statistics & numerical data