The 8th Amendment: How Does the Eight Amendment Protect Prisoners’ Medical Rights?


Many people assume that a person loses all their rights when they are sentenced to serve time in prison. However, this is wrong. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution—prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishment”—gives convicted inmates the right to adequate medical care. The United States Constitution specifically provides certain rights to prisoners, especially under the Eighth Amendment, which states that prisoners cannot be subject to “cruel and unusual punishment.” 

This short phrase has been applied to all sorts of situations which a prisoner may confront - being held in prison beyond his lawful maximum sentence, or being held in long term solitary confinement without justification, for example. However, one of the most common violations of a prisoner’s Constitutional rights is when they are denied adequate medical care. To file a claim for denial of adequate medical care, a prisoner must prove that the medical providers were “deliberately indifferent” to his serious medical need. 

In Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994), the United States Supreme Court required prisons to provide adequate medical care because “[a]n inmate must rely on prison authorities to treat his medical needs; if the authorities fail to do so, those needs will not be met.” The Court explained that to deny such care could result in “pain and suffering which no one suggests would serve any penological purpose.”

The United States Supreme Court described the elements of deliberate indifference in Farmer. To recover for injuries caused by a prison official’s deliberate indifference, an prisoner must prove:  “the official knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety; the official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw the inference. . . .” In other words, the prison officials must have had actual knowledge of an “excessive risk of harm” to an prisoner, have the power to correct the problem, and then failed to correct it. Mere negligence, or not acting in a reasonable manner, by a prison official towards an prisoner is not enough to meet this standard. 

When a prisoner is denied appropriate medical care, they may have a deliberate indifference claim if the denial of medical care has harmed a prisoner or created an excessive risk of harm. Prison officials are required to provide “adequate” medical care to all prisoners by the Eighth Amendment. When medical treatment is refused for no medical reason, or for a non-medical reason, a prisoner may have a deliberate indifference claim. However, mere difference of opinion between the staff and prisoner as to how to treat a condition is not enough to support a claim. 


  • where prison authorities deny reasonable requests for medical treatment ... and such denial exposes the inmate ‘to undue suffering or the threat of tangible residual injury;

  • where ‘knowledge of the need for medical care is accompanied by the intentional refusal to provide that care;

  • where “necessary medical treatment is delayed for non-medical reasons;

  • where prison officials erect arbitrary and burdensome procedures that ‘result in interminable delays and outright denials of medical care to suffering inmates;

  • where prison officials condition provision of needed medical services on the inmate's ability or willingness to pay;

  • where prison officials deny access to a physician capable of evaluating the need for treatment of a serious medical need; and

  • where the prison official persists in a particular course of treatment “in the face of resultant pain and risk of permanent injury.”

Deliberate indifference can also extend to dental and mental health care. For example, courts have found that refusing to do more than pull rotting teeth violates the constitution, and that inmates must be provided with toothpaste. 

The standards for adequate mental health care include: proper evaluation of each prisoner’s mental health; treatment for mental health which goes beyond segregation from general population; care provided by trained mental health professionals; accurate and confidential mental health records for each inmate; and proper implementation of suicide prevention policies.


The Courts require a prisoners to show more than a disagreement with the prison doctor over the proper course of treatment to recover. Lawsuits based on claims that one type of treatment is better than another will be quickly dismissed. Instead, the prisoner must prove that the prison doctor failed to treat him in accordance with the “standard of care.” Put another way, a prisoner must prove that the medical staff’s conduct were not based upon legitimate medical judgment. 

However, simply demonstrating that the government or a government employee has violated a prisoner’s constitutional rights, is not enough to be awarded compensation. A victim of a constitutional violation must prove the actual damages he has suffered. If actual damages cannot be proven, all a person is entitled to is “nominal” damages - usually one dollar.


  • By showing significant pain and suffering caused by a delay or denial of medical care;

  • By showing that a person’s long term physical health has decreased;

  • By showing that a person’s physical capabilities have decreased

  • By showing that a person’s mental health has been decreased;

  • By showing that a person’s ability to earn income has decreased;

  • By showing that a death, amputation, or serious surgery was more likely as a result of a delay or denial of medical care.

Finally, it is important to understand that no matter how serious your injuries are, a prisoner cannot file an Eighth Amendment claim in Federal Court until he has exhausted all his administrative grievances. Therefore, the first thing to do after suffering an injury or being denied medical care is to promptly file a grievance. Under Pennsylvania Department of Corrections rules, an initial grievance must be filed within 15 days of the incident, and failing to complete this process - including filing all the appeals - terminates a prisoner’s right to file a lawsuit. 

If you or someone you know has been denied medical treatment while incarcerated, please contact the Mizner Law Firm at or call 814.454.3889 to learn how we may be able to assist you.