PHOENIX — A patient with severe mental illness at the Arizona State Hospital claims he’s been unlawfully secluded for hundreds of days and soon plans to file a lawsuit with the help of multiple Valley attorneys.
A trio of lawyers for Isaac Contreras filed a notice of claim against the state on November 10.
Instead of treatment, the claim alleges that the hospital has engaged cruel and unusual punishment and even created a special policy to avoid the normal constitutional and legal requirements to prolong a patient’s isolation.
“The hospital is so mismanaged and so short staffed that they are willing to sacrifice one human being behind locked doors because his mental illness requires extra staffing,” said Holly Gieszl, one of Contreras’s attorneys.
The hospital is the state’s only publicly run psychiatric facility and is operated by the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS).
It’s considered the last resort for Arizona’s most vulnerable and severely mentally ill.
Contreras, who’s 38 years old and designated as severely mentally ill (SMI), has been held in isolation since July 2020, according to his notice of claim.
But instead of adhering to strict requirements for seclusion, Contreras’s attorneys said hospital officials are abusing a made-up designation called “administrative separation.”
“They just wrote a policy that they think trumps the constitution, the statutes, the regulations, and all of the law that governs the way they operate on a day-to-day basis,” said attorney Josh Mozell, who represents Contreras and many other patients at the hospital.
An ADHS spokesperson said the state can’t comment on specific patients or allegations due to confidentiality laws.
“Under state and federal law, including the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), ADHS cannot provide information that may identify a patient in the Arizona State Hospital. We can address general procedures and the policies, rules and statues behind them but cannot connect these answers to specific patients,” ADHS Communications Director Steve Elliot wrote in an email. “ASH uses administrative separation under limited circumstances and when necessary for the safety of patients.”
In the notice of claim, it includes a “rubbing” Contreras made with a crayon of the permanent sign outside his door.
It says “SECLUSION.”
Contreras’s attorneys said they’ve been blocked from seeing the area where Contreras is housed.
However, staff members have smuggled Contreras cell phones, which he’s used to periodically shoot video of his living conditions and publish the footage on YouTube.
Attorneys said hospital administrators have unsuccessfully tried to get the videos taken down.
The videos show Contreras lives in a confined area with a small bedroom, hallway, and bathroom.
There are no windows to outside, according to his attorneys.
“This space is designed to make you go even madder,” Contreras said in one of his recorded videos. “Like I said, I’m not perfect. But I didn’t deserve this either.”
Contreras was physically and sexually abused as a child by an older man he knew, according to his notice of claim. He killed his abuser as a teen and was sentenced to the Arizona Department of Corrections.
After his release, his condition deteriorated, and he was committed to the state hospital.
Before his seclusion, Contreras filed hundreds of grievances and complaints about his care, according to his attorneys.
Mozell said he views Contreras’s isolation as retaliation since some of his past complaints were sustained by outside regulators.
The notice of claim said Contreras will settle his case for $10 million.
But his attorneys said that’s a small amount compared to the cumulative financial penalties for unlawfully holding someone in seclusion for nearly a year and a half.
“When someone gets put into seclusion, there has to be a new doctor’s order every three hours, a nurse has to check them every hour, there has to be 15-minute checks every hour of every day,” Mozell said.
The notice of claim said statutorily Isaac is entitled to $1,000, or three times his actually damages, for each violation.
So far, his attorneys estimate there have been at least 201,000 violations, making the total financial penalties against the hospital at least $201 million.
ABC15 has reported extensively on the Arizona State Hospital for nearly a decade.
News reports have exposed problems with escapes, suicides, more than 1,000 ignored assaults, illegally withheld public records, staffing problems, staff having sex with patients, and extreme violence.
In 2015, six top hospital and health department executives were fired following a series of ABC15 reports.
In a pair of investigative reports last year, the station exposed a lack of supervision and treatment led to a brutal homicide at the hospital.
Within the last month, two state hospital patients have committed suicide.
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.