PHOENIX — A former patient has filed a lawsuit against the Arizona State Hospital that claims he was unlawfully isolated and secluded for more than 600 days.
The lawsuit was filed on July 15 on behalf of Isaac Contreras.
Instead of providing Contreras with appropriate supervision and treatment, the complaint alleges that hospital leaders “resorted to cruelty that borders on torture.”
The hospital is the state’s only publicly run psychiatric facility and is operated by the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS).
An ADHS spokesperson said the department won’t comment on ongoing litigation.
“He’s going to leave more damaged than when he went in. They locked him up and they threw away the key. And that’s not what they are supposed to do,” said Holly Gieszl, one of four attorneys representing Contreras.
Contreras is designated as severely mentally ill (SMI), and was held in isolation since from July 2020 to May 2022, when he was released, according to the lawsuit.
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.
For a previous report about Contreras, ADHS officials told ABC15 they comment on specific patients or allegations due to confidentiality laws.
But sent this general statement about administrative separation.
“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 statutes 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 a pre-lawsuit settlement demand, Contreras’s attorneys included an image of a “rubbing” Contreras made with a crayon on the permanent sign outside his door.
It says “SECLUSION.”
Contreras’s attorneys said they were blocked from seeing the area where Contreras was housed.
However, staff members smuggled Contreras's cell phones, which he’s used to periodically shoot video of his living conditions and publish the footage on YouTube.
Attorneys said hospital administrators unsuccessfully tried to get the videos taken down.
The videos show Contreras lived 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, court records show. 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.
“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 lawsuit said statutorily Contreras is entitled to $1,000, or three times his actually damages, for each violation.
ABC15 has reported extensively on the Arizona State Hospital for nearly a decade.
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.
Contact ABC15 Chief Investigator Dave Biscobing at firstname.lastname@example.org.