A Federal Court Finds Conditions in Arizona Prisons Unconstitutional

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Special to the Vanguard

Phoenix, AZ – The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry (ADCRR) systematically violates the constitutional rights of persons incarcerated in the state’s prisons by failing to provide them minimally adequate medical and mental health care, and by subjecting them to harsh and deprived conditions in solitary confinement units – a U.S. District Judge Roslyn O. Silver found on June 30.

“Judge Silver’s ruling is a victory for the Constitution and the rule of law, and a vindication for the many thousands who have endured the appalling conditions in Arizona prisons,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “We are heartened by this landmark decision, and expect state officials to comply with it immediately.”

The lawsuit, Jensen v. Shinn, is part of a decade-long struggle to ensure that the nearly 30,000 adults and children in Arizona’s prisons receive the basic health care and minimally adequate conditions to which they are entitled under the law.

“People in prison have a right to basic and adequate health care under the Eighth Amendment, and a prison sentence should never become a death sentence for people with treatable medical and mental health conditions,” said Rita Lomio, attorney at the Prison Law Office. “The court’s order affirms this bedrock constitutional principle.”

In the ruling, Judge Silver found that the ADCRR has “failed to provide, and continues to refuse to provide, a constitutionally adequate medical care and mental health care system for all prisoners,” and that the prisons’ “health care system is plainly grossly inadequate. Defendants have been aware of their failures for years and Defendants have refused to take necessary actions to remedy the failures.”

“The indefinite use of solitary confinement, especially for vulnerable populations like children or people with mental illness, violates the U.S. Constitution and all norms of basic human rights,” said Maya Abela, deputy legal director at the Arizona Center for Disability Law. “At trial, Arizona prison officials and staff admitted to chronic understaffing and routine falsification of data. Evidence showed people in these units often went days without receiving food or being allowed out of their cells for even a shower.”

Judge Silver also found that Arizona’s overuse of solitary confinement causes grave harm to the adults and children in state prisons who endure it. Specifically, she found that ADCRR keeps “thousands of prisoners in restrictive housing units where they are not provided adequate nutrition, nor are they provided meaningful out-of-cell time for exercise or social interaction. Defendants’ treatment of prisoners in restrictive housing units results in the deprivation of basic human needs. For years, Defendants have known of the deficiencies, highlighted by Court intervention and direction, and refused to take meaningful remedial actions.”

“For too long, Arizona state officials have purposefully looked the other way and provided no meaningful oversight of the horrific healthcare in Arizona prisons. I hope today starts to change that,” said Daniel Barr, a partner in the Phoenix office of Perkins Coie LLP. “I thank the three judges who have handled this case over the past 10 years — Judge Silver and Judges David Duncan and Neil Wake — and for all they have done to make this day possible.”

Judge Silver’s ruling came after a 15-day trial held in November and December 2021, where the evidence showed that incarcerated people suffered excruciating pain, permanent injuries, and preventable deaths due to the state’s failure to provide health care. The evidence presented at trial includes expert testimony regarding unconstitutional medical care, mental health care, the psychological effects of and conditions in isolation units, and health care staffing.

The class action lawsuit was originally filed in 2012 against ADCRR, on behalf of all persons incarcerated in the state’s 10 prisons.  That case resulted in a 2014 court-approved settlement that was meant to protect the rights and health of incarcerated persons. The federal judges overseeing the implementation of the reforms issued numerous enforcement orders and twice found state prison officials in contempt, fining the state more than $2.5 million for their for-profit health care contractors’ failure to provide basic health care to incarcerated people. In July 2021, Judge Silver set aside the settlement agreement due to ADCRR’s “pervasive material breaches” of the agreement, and set the case for trial.

A copy of the court’s order is available here: https://prisonlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/22.06.30-Doc-4335-Findings-of-Fact-after-Trial.pdf

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