Author: Hannah Zuckerman

Inhumane Living Conditions: How the D.C. Jail Imposes Cruel and Unusual Punishments

The intersection between health care and prison reform has arguably never been more publicly visible than through the inhumane living conditions endured by the detainees at the D.C. county jail. This jail has consistently come under scrutiny regarding its conditions including, but not limited to, extreme confinement lasting more than 400 days and a class action lawsuit pertaining to proper COVID protocols. Unfortunately, this is just one example of the many jails, prisons, and detention centers in America that force detainees to suffer through uninhabitable conditions.

An impromptu inspection in October of 2021 revealed that the D.C. jail’s roughly 1,500 detainees are forced to live in systemic, inhumane and unsanitary living conditions. Notedly, many of these detainees have yet to be found guilty and are currently awaiting trial. These egregious conditions range from denial of food, water, and showers for punitive reasons, cells filled with sewage and bloodwater leaks, moldroaches, and lack of access to necessary medical care. There is no question that long term exposure to these conditions leads to physical and psychological trauma, which increases the likelihood that they will require future medical care.

Many representatives have likened the jail’s conditions to unconstitutional, cruel and unusual punishments. Even Marjorie Taylor Greene drew attention to the matter by visiting the January 6th defendants and claimed they face conditions worse than the homeless and prisoners of war. The roughly 40 January 6th detainees, however, are located in the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF). They are isolated from the jail’s general population with more sanitary conditions, and thus they will not be transferred immediately. In fact, many of the jail’s other detainees have filed emergency motions to transfer into CTF.

A 2015 report on D.C. prisoners’ living conditions proves that authorities were notified of these inhumane living conditions. These conditions, however, are nothing new to the Black detainees who make up 87% of the jail’s populationand have repeatedly complained throughout the years. It is no surprise that U.S. media attention and legal action began to rise due to complaints made by the mostly white, January 6th defendants. Recently, a U.S. judge held D.C. jail officials in contempt for delaying medical treatment to a January 6th defendant that broke his wrist in custody and required surgery. This judge further recommended that the Department of Justice investigate potential civil rights violations at the jail.

Following the 2021 inspection and recent legal actions, the U.S. Marshal ordered the transfer of all sentenced inmates beginning November 8, 2021. Unfortunately, many of these inmates will be transferred to a prison in Lewisburg, PA where living conditions are not much better and inmates will likely have less access to their lawyers. “The notion that Lewisburg is an improvement over the D.C. jail points to the degree of human suffering occurring right now,” said the D.C. Public Defenders Office. The rest of the detainees will remain in D.C. until their upcoming hearing dates where they will either be released or quarantined before being transferred to Lewisburg or federal prison. 

A silver lining can be found in the midst of these civil and constitutional rights violations, notwithstanding what it took to get them formally recognized. D.C. officials were forced to address these inhumane living conditions due to the influx of complaints, media attention, investigational reports, and legal actions. A local task force created and expedited a plan to replace the D.C. facility, which will be completed by 2027. This new facility will presumably be equipped with the safe, sanitary living conditions that these inmates deserve. 

In addition to human rights violations, it is also interesting to note the financial impact that systemic treatment of inmates across the U.S. has on the American economy and individual taxpayer. The Supreme Court previously determined that inmates have a constitutional right to medical care while in custody. Although inmates may retain pre-incarceration private insurance coverage, a majority qualify for Medicaid and Medicare. Those programs, however, often refuse to pay for health care during incarceration leaving states responsible for covering the cost in order to avoid constitutional violations. Thus, it is in the federal, state, and local governments’ best interest to maintain livable jails and prisons to reduce financial costs in addition to constitutional and civil rights violations. It is imperative that safer living conditions are incorporated in the discussion of prison reform; our nation’s incarcerated, taxpayers, and government will be better off for it.

State Ban Puts Abortion Rights at Jeopardy Once Again

Before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, women went great lengths to end unwanted pregnancies. Those with money traveled to countries where abortion was legal or persuaded their family physician to illegally perform the procedure. Other women were limited to self-induced abortions, using household items like hangers, knives, chemicals, and stairs. These unconventional methods often led to gruesome injuries or death, and reports indicate women of color disproportionately faced such complications. The right to control one’s body became the central tenant of the Women’s Rights Movement, and many compared the government’s control over a woman’s body to an authoritarian government.

In 1973, the Supreme Court heard Roe v. Wade and decided that abortion is a fundamental right subject to the strictest scrutiny. The Supreme Court held that a state can impose its interest of preserving life only after viability, except when it’s necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother. After its legalization, abortion related deaths dramatically declined. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court invalidated restrictions that imposed undue burdens on the right to obtain an abortion prior to viability. This case is exceptionally critical as the Court emphasized stare decisis, commonly known as precedent, and indicated that to overrule the central tenant of Roe would undermine judicial legitimacy since the underpinnings of its decision had not changed. Notably, the Court stressed that the ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation is dependent on the ability to control their reproductive lives.

Although Roe effectively legalized abortion, states continuously create barriers to abortion access by passing legislation regulating provider and patient conduct, even without benefit to the patient. These restrictions have led to detrimental impacts on access to abortion, for example leaving many states with only one abortion clinic.

On March 9, Arkansas passed a new restriction on abortion that is far more oppressive than other states’ restrictions. This legislation acts as a near-total abortion ban by only allowing it when needed to preserve the health of the mother or fetus. This statute is one of the nation’s most restrictive bans because there are no exceptions in instances of rape or incest and violators risk a $100,000 fine or time in prison. Within the last two years, courts have repeatedly blocked other states’ attempts to implement similar restrictions. Unfortunately, this Arkansas abortion ban is remarkably different. As the statute currently stands, it is unconstitutional for violating the framework laid out in Roe. However, Arkansas Governor Hutchinson’s goal with this restriction is to go before the Supreme Court and overturn Roe. This is especially concerning as it would be the first major opportunity for the Court to review Roe since gaining a conservative majority.

If the Arkansas statute is reviewed by the Supreme Court, Justices will be forced to decide whether or not to apply reinforced judicial precedent to a fundamental right, whose legal underpinnings remain unchanged. Women have been having abortions for decades and will not stop simply because it is illegal. The question is: will there be a safe abortion option for women in the United States or will we return to our inhumane past?

Do COVID-19 Restrictions Apply to Religious Ceremonies?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, health experts have urged social distancing practices to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19. Nevertheless, some Americans continue to disregard health experts’ recommendations by both refusing to wear masks and social distance. One common trend across the U.S. that poses a health risk are religious ceremonies with many in attendance and few masks in sight. For example, James River Church in Springfield, Missouri continues to hold multiple Christmas celebrations with thousands of attendees. Additionally, a few thousand Orthodox Jews attended a secret wedding in early November. These events act as “superspreaders” due to the quantity of individuals present, many of whom travel from across the country.

In New York, Governor Cuomo attempted to curb the spread of COVID-19 by restricting social gatherings including limiting indoor religious ceremonies to 10-25 people. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America filed suit against the state arguing that restricting religious gatherings infringes religious freedoms provided under the First Amendment. The New York Supreme Court upheld the COVID-19 restrictions. On appeal however, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling in a 5-4 decision granting the exemption. The Justices determined that the First Amendment granted religious individuals an exemption from adhering to social gathering restrictions because it infringes the right to freely practice religion.

The plaintiffs further argued that the state’s COVID-19 restrictions targeted religious groups differently than essential businesses that are operating. Similarly, in Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court ruled generally applicable laws that unintentionally burden religious freedoms are not excusable. Furthermore, they declared only laws intended to limit free exercise of religion or violate other constitutional rights must be analyzed in connection to the state’s compelling interests and implemented in the least restrictive means. Therefore, a court may uphold restrictions on religious gatherings if the state can either prove restrictions are generally applicable or that there is a compelling interest such as the health risks posed by COVID-19.

This Supreme Court decision contrasts those prior to Justice Ginsburg’s death wherein restrictions on religious ceremonies in California and Nevada were upheld. This recent case is yet another example of the Supreme Court’s battle with balancing religious freedoms and societal stability. Consistent with the historic trend of conservative SCOTUS majorities, cases concerning one’s “freedom of religion” may inadvertently infringe upon others’ rights to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” With the Supreme Court’s ability to impact every American’s life, they play an important role in preserving the health and safety of the public. With nearly 17 million cases this week, this recent decision will undoubtedly delay the urgent attempts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in America.

Are Physicians and Hospitals Profiting from Over-Reporting COVID-19 Deaths?

Currently, there are over 11.8 million active cases and 253,600 COVID-19 related deaths in the United States. Since the onset of the pandemic, the Trump Administration has repeatedly downplayed COVID-19, denounced mask-wearing mandates, and refused to order a nationwide shutdown. Moreover, the current administration has been criticized for false claims that physicians are financially benefiting from the increase in COVID-19 cases. For instance, at a Michigan rally, President Trump stated that “our doctors get more money if somebody dies from COVID.” He then criticized the United States’ method of reporting COVID-19 deaths by stating deaths are characterized differently in other countries if a patient has multiple causes of death. However, this is misleading because the World Health Organization dictates that COVID-19 deaths should “not be attributed to another disease (i.e. cancer) and should be counted independently of preexisting conditions that are suspected of triggering a severe course of COVID-19.”

The interpretation of the administration’s unsubstantiated statements is that physicians and hospitals are incentivized to over-report COVID-19 deaths in order to receive additional federal funding supplied by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES). The term “upcoding” is used when providers fraudulently request reimbursements for services they did not provide to patients. Upcoding violates the False Claims Act (“FCA”) which prohibits providers from intentionally making false claims to federal healthcare programs. Penalties for violating the FCA include fines triple the amount of the claim plus $11,000, criminal prosecution, and imprisonment.

Unjustified claims against COVID-19 reporting reveal a general misunderstanding of how the U.S. healthcare billing system functions. Insurance companies and payor systems, including Medicare, require physicians to bill for various services provided to the patient throughout their treatment. Therefore, providers are compensated for treating COVID-19 related symptoms regardless if the patient dies from a pre-existing condition. Since reimbursements are not increased based on cause of death, providers have no financial incentive to over-report COVID-19 deaths.

The CARES Act increased physician and hospital reimbursements by 20% in an effort to assist hospitals with the increased costs related to COVID-19. Medicare has estimated the cost of treatment for an inpatient with COVID-19 to be around $13,000. If the patient requires a ventilator, the cost of treatment increases to roughly $39,000. The reimbursements that insurance companies pay out is split between the physicians and hospitals. Physicians are reimbursed for services rendered to patients, while hospitals are reimbursed for the use of equipment, nurse and staffing salary, laboratory services, and various treatment related services. Although hospitals stand to receive additional financial compensation, these institutions are not “financially benefiting”. The additional funds are allocated to cover the increased cost of resources needed for treating COVID-19 patients in addition to providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to employees. The additional money from the CARES Act also allows hospitals to hire additional nurses and staff. Furthermore, while the federal government has provided aid in supplying expensive medical equipment, the increase in cases have left many hospitals needing to purchase additional ventilators. The CARES Act reimbursement enables hospitals to purchase additional necessary equipment required to treat COVID-19 patients and PPE to protect hospital staff from contracting the virus.

Although data shows reimbursement rates for COVID-19 patients are higher, there is no evidence suggesting provider upcoding or other fraudulent over-reporting of COVID-19 deaths. Unsubstantiated claims against physicians and other providers gravely undermines the ethics and hard work of many American frontline workers and lends itself to the fear that surrounds the impact of COVID-19 in the US.