Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

New Jersey Supreme Court Orders DOC to Codify Prisoner Healthcare Responsibilities

by John E. Dannenberg

The Supreme Court of New Jersey, incensed with the inhumane treatment of a state prisoner who was systematically denied Hepatitis-C treatment for four years, ordered the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) to enact regulations codifying its responsibility for prisoners? healthcare.
The ruling also mandated that NJDOC promptly notify prisoners if they have a serious medical problem requiring treatment, provide them with access to their medical records, and formulate procedures to correct errors in prisoners? medical files.

A Trenton, New Jersey state prisoner identified in court pleadings as J.D.A. was told he had Hepatitis-C when he was in a Pennsylvania prison.
Upon his transfer to NJDOC, the state would neither believe him when he said he had tested positive nor administer new tests. When he finally obtained another Hepatitis-C test in 2001, the results (positive) were errantly entered into his medical records by NJDOC?s medical contractor, St. Louis-based Correctional Medical Services (CMS), as ?negative.? When he tried to see his lab results, J.D.A. was denied by NJDOC; he then turned to the courts. It took four years before he was even seen, let alone treated, for his life-threatening medical condition.

In 2004, after J.D.A. had learned that his Hepatitis-C test was indeed positive, he petitioned CMS to correct his medical records. CMS refused, stating that only CMS, and not a prisoner, may make changes to a medical file (which they deemed a ?legal document?). Moreover, the company said that NJDOC couldn?t do it either, because ?CMS owned the medical records.? J.D.A. countered that NJDOC has a non-delegable duty to maintain correct medical records. NJDOC argued that J.D.A. should sue CMS, not NJDOC. J.D.A. solved that problem by suing both in the Appellate Division; however, that court granted the defendants? summary judgment motion in December 2004, ordering CMS to only ?consider? J.D.A.?s complaint.

J.D.A. filed a petition for certification to the New Jersey Supreme Court in February 2005. Four months later, when the Court asked CMS if the company had corrected J.D.A.?s records, they answered ?no? but agreed to fix some errors while explaining why they would not fix others. J.D.A. supplemented his petition, adding new allegations of violations of his rights, and the Court granted certification.

By the time the case reached the oral argument stage, NJDOC had conceded that it did have a duty to maintain correct health care records, and stated that every prisoner now had access to his complete medical file including lab test results conducted by outside contractors. While the Supreme Court could have mooted the case based upon specific performance, it chose not to do so because of the ?labyrinthine history of this case.?
Basically, the Court found the non-acceptance of responsibility by both NJDOC and CMS so repugnant that it did not trust them to conduct themselves within constitutional guidelines without formal direction.

Accordingly, on Feb. 27, 2007, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division and ordered NJDOC to ?expeditiously enact comprehensive rules and regulations codifying its obligations for medical care and record keeping, and the methods by which they will be satisfied.? The Court added the requirements to notify prisoners of any serious medical problems, and to provide access to medical records and a way to correct such records when they contain inaccuracies. See: J.D.A. v. New Jersey Department of Corrections, 189 N.J. 413, 915 A.2d 1041 (N.J., 2007).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

J.D.A. v. New Jersey Department of Corrections