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Judge: Arizona prison system healthcare violates constitutional rights

Posted at 6:57 PM, Jul 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-05 16:19:03-04

Medical and mental health care in Arizona prisons is so bad, it violates the 8th amendment of the US Constitution which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, a federal court has ruled.

US District Court Judge Roslyn Silver found that the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) health care system is "plainly grossly inadequate." Adding, "Defendants have been aware of their failures for years and Defendants have refused to take necessary actions to remedy the failures."

The ACLU National Prison Project filed a lawsuit in 2012 alleging poor healthcare conditions inside Arizona's state-run prisons.

The case was settled in 2014.

"There were 113 separate measures that they were supposed to comply with," said National Prison Project director David Fathi. "But for a large number of those, they were never willing or able to come into compliance."

Since the settlement, the Department has been held in contempt twice and received fines of more than $2 million dollars for not complying with the terms.

In 2021, Judge Silver ordered the settlement be thrown out and that ADC go on trial over its treatment of inmates.

The November trial included weeks of testimony from inmates that the judge cited in her ruling.

A female inmate who showed progressive signs of Multiple Sclerosis was instead diagnosed as "likely suffering from 'conversion disorder' which in essence means she is delusional," the ruling stated. That inmate's MS went undiagnosed and untreated for years.

The ruling quotes an expert witness who interviewed her in August 2021 and observed she "is unable to feed or wash herself, walk, write, and her vision is failing."

Judge Silver called the case "a paradigmatic example of the most callous and inhumane indifference."

The ruling also cites a 25-year-old male inmate who had a history of paranoid schizophrenia, indicating his job in the prison was stressful and requested to be back on his medication. Records show that request was not granted prior to his death by suicide.

In another incident cited in the ruling, records showed an inmate in solitary confinement only received nine meals in seven days allegedly.

"I really have to emphasize just how extraordinary that is," Fathi said. "Prisoners being denied food is just not something we see in mature democratic countries and yet, here it is happening in Arizona in 2022."

The Judge was particularly critical of ADC Director David Shinn who testified that Arizona inmates have better healthcare access than people in the community including him.

The judge calling the claim "completely detached from reality. Given the overwhelming evidence and repeated instance of insufficient care leading to suffering and death, Defendant Shinn could not possibly believe prisoners have the same access to care as people in the community."

Shinn is responsible for ADC now. But the case began under former director Charles Ryan who was also at the helm during another disturbing case involving Arizona's prison system.

In 2019, ABC15's Unlocked and Unsafe series revealed that cell door locks in an Arizona prison were not working for months and left dozens of high-risk inmates free to leave their cells, light fires and in some cases ambush guards. The state legislature has since appropriated funds to fix many of the locks.

Despite Department's history of inaction, Fathi believes this time there will be some accountability.

"They have fought us tooth and nail every step of the way. They have spent more than $10 million on private attorneys, even though they're represented by the Attorney General's Office. We think enough is enough. The time has come for ADC to recognize reality and to finally at long last fix these lethal problems," Fathi said.

The ruling only applies to Arizona's 10 state-run prisons. The six private-run prisons are not part of the lawsuit.

All parties have until August 15 to nominate experts to help the Judge determine how ADC will be made to correct its poor quality of care.

The Department provided ABC15 the following statement:
"ADCRR is reviewing the ruling. We remain committed to working collaboratively with the Court, Plaintiffs’ counsel, and appointed experts to meet the healthcare needs of those in our custody and care. We will continue to actively look for opportunities to enhance healthcare delivery methods and protocols, and to upgrade the electronic medical record system."

Editor's note: this story was updated to include ADC's response which was provded after the story was originally published.