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Withholding Migraine Treatment: Cruel and Unusual

by Megan Oltman

Part of the Bill of Rights, the 8th Amendment to the United States Constitution, guarantees that prisoners shall not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.  This clause prohibits torture and has been widely cited in support of abolishing the death penalty. It also forbids the withholding of medical treatment from prisoners in need of treatment. A prisoner in need of medical care has nowhere to go but the prison authorities. To withhold treatment from a prisoner would be using the medical condition of the prisoner as a part of their punishment - and this is held to be cruel and unusual in a long line of 8th Amendment cases.

Cases hold that the infliction of pain from an untreated medical condition, or indifference by prison authorities to the medical needs of the prisoner, is cruel and unusual punishment. The Federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals described the standard for 8th Amendment medical treatment cases in Iseley v. Beard.1  First, the court noted, the withholding of treatment must constitute "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" or "deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs" of a prisoner (Estelle v. Gamble2). In addition, to prove deliberate indifference, the plaintiff had to establish that he faced a "substantial risk of serious harm," and that the defendants disregarded "that risk by failing to take reasonable measures to abate it." (Farmer v. Brennan3)

What does all this have to do with Migraines? Recently, I came across an 8th Amendment case involving a prisoner who was a Migraineur. Withholding treatment for Migraines is an 8th Amendment cruel and unusual punishment just the same as refusing to do a biopsy to test for cancer, or refusing to treat a case of hepatitis. In Moriarty v. Neubold4, Migraineur Michael Moriarty was incarcerated in a Bridgeport, Connecticut, correctional facility. He claimed 8th amendment cruel and unusual punishment due to:

1. the prison doctor's delay in treating him,

2. the prison doctor's refusal to treat him with the medications he had been prescribed before his incarceration, and

3. to the prison health administrator's refusal to speed up the prison doctor's order for Imitrex.

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