"Drug Holiday" Not Cruel; Constitutional Challenge to Prisoner's Treatment Lapses Nixed
February 6, 2003
A federal appeals court in New York ruled Jan. 14 that the New York state prison system did not violate the constitutional rights of an HIV-positive prisoner when he was twice deprived of his medication, for periods of seven and five days. Upholding a jury verdict against Willie Smith, the court found that a jury could have concluded, based largely on testimony by Department of Correctional Services Dr. Marshall Trabout, that such interruptions in treatment do not create a serious medical risk.Adapted from:
Trabout testified that Smith's reported symptoms -- temporary itching, severe headaches and stress -- were more likely side effects from the medications, and would not have been caused by the brief deprivations. Though Trabout agreed that missing HIV medications could be potentially harmful, possibly leading to viral mutations and drug resistance, in this case he said it did not appear that Smith had suffered such consequences.
The jury was instructed that in order to find a violation of the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, it would have to find that Smith had a "serious medical condition" "presenting a substantial risk of harm," one that "might produce extreme pain, degeneration, or death," and that the prison was aware of the condition and deliberately failed to provide medical care. If the jury found Smith did not have a serious medical condition, they would not have to answer the other questions. The jury answered the threshold question "no," and thus did not answer the other questions.
Circuit Judge Chester Straub rejected Smith's argument that it was irrelevant that he did not seem to have actually suffered any serious consequences from the enforced drug holidays. The fact that HIV infection is itself a serious condition was not the issue because, in general, Smith was receiving appropriate treatment for that. The court also rejected Smith's argument that the jury should not have considered in hindsight the fact that these deprivations did not appear to cause him any harm, noting that prison records showed Smith's viral load was better than it had been when his HIV status was first detected in 1995.
Gay City News (New York City)
01.24.03; Arthur S. Leonard
This article was provided by CDC National Prevention Information Network. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update.