PHOENIX - A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that about 33,000 inmates can join a lawsuit protesting the quality of health care in Arizona state prisons.
In issuing the ruling, the three-judge panel of 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an appeal by Arizona corrections officials that said the inmates didn't have enough in common for a lower-court judge to grant them class-action status in the case.
The appeals court said the prisoners met the requirements for expanding the number of inmates covered under the suit from 13 to the entire population in state prisons.
"It's a great boost to our case," said Dan Pochoda, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represents the prisoners.
The 2012 lawsuit against Arizona Corrections Director Charles Ryan and another prison official alleges state prisons don't meet the basic requirements for providing adequate medical and mental health care to inmates, and that prisoners face dangerous delays and outright denials in receiving treatment.
Prison officials have denied the allegations and said they disagreed with the ruling in Thursday. The Department of Corrections declined to comment on whether it would appeal the latest decision.
The lawsuit accuses corrections officials of having a deliberate indifference toward the suffering of prisoners and failing to correct problems that were brought to their attention. It says there aren't enough health care workers in prisons to treat the large number of inmates, and that critically ill inmates were told to be patient and pray to be cured after they begged for treatment.
The prisoners who filed the case aren't seeking monetary damages and instead asked for a court order declaring that Arizona's prisons violated prisoners' Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. They also want an order requiring a plan to better staff the prisons with health care workers and other steps.
Specifically, the lawsuit contends that a prison medical staff failed to initially diagnose an inmate's metastasized cancer, and another inmate with a history of prostate cancer had to wait more than two years for a biopsy.
In addition, nothing was done for an inmate who suffered from depression, had asked staff members for help because he was suicidal, and later killed himself, according to the lawsuit.
An Oct. 20 trial has been scheduled in the case.