A Human Rights Framework for Advancing the Standard of Medical Care for Incarcerated People in the United States in the Time of COVID-19

Health Hum Rights. 2022 Jun;24(1):59-75.


The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the lack of resources and oversight that hinders medical care for incarcerated people in the United States. The US Supreme Court has held that "deliberate indifference" to "serious medical needs" violates the Constitution. But this legal standard does not assure the consistent provision of health care services. This leads the United States to fall behind European nations that define universal standards of care grounded in principles of human rights and the ideal of equivalence that incarcerated and non-incarcerated people are entitled to the same health care. In this paper, we review a diverse legal and policy literature and undertake a conceptual analysis of policy issues related to the standard of care in correctional health; we then describe a framework for moving incrementally closer toward a universal standard. The expansion of Medicaid funding and benefits to corrections facilities, alongside a system of comprehensive and enforceable external oversight, would meaningfully raise the standard of care. Although these changes on their own will not resolve all of the thorny health problems posed by mass incarceration, they present a tangible opportunity to move closer to the human rights ideal.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Health Services
  • Human Rights
  • Humans
  • Pandemics
  • Prisoners*
  • United States