HKS Authors

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The U.S. Constitution does not guarantee a right to health care. Yet since 1976, the Supreme Court has held that deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs of incarcerated people — a population that is disproportionately sick, poor, and from marginalized racial and ethnic groups — violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. What this right means in practice, however, is far from settled, given that the standards for “deliberate indifference” and “serious medical need” are subject to judicial interpretation. Lacking quality standards, robust monitoring, and funding from public medical insurance programs, correctional administrators must provide health care for incarcerated people with limited guidance and often scarce resources. Incarcerated people have little recourse for woefully inadequate medical care except litigation, but they face multiple barriers to accessing the legal system and counsel, and rare wins yield only incremental relief. In the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, it is particularly important to elucidate the relevant legal landscape and explore mechanisms for safeguarding the constitutional right to health care in correctional facilities.


Alsan, Marcella, Crystal S. Yang, James R. Jolin, Lucy Tu, and Josiah D. Rich. "Health Care in U.S. Correctional Facilities — A Limited and Threatened Constitutional Right." New England Journal of Medicine 388 (March 2, 2023): 847-852.