Federal Judge Rules Arizona State Prison System Must Undergo Major Reform to Protect Incarcerated Health 

AZ Prison

By Daphne Ho and Ramneet Singh

PHOENIX, AZ – The Arizona state prison system must undergo major reform to meet constitutional requirements through the healthcare standards described in U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver’s order, which brings the long-going case of Jensen v. Shinn closer to a decision.

A 2012 class action lawsuit on behalf of all Arizona state prison members against the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry resulted in a settlement intended to provide protection.

Judges “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,” according to the ACLU

The ACLU noted that in a trial at the end of 2021, evidence included “showing incarcerated people suffer excruciating pain, gruesome permanent injuries, and preventable deaths due to the state’s failure to provide basic health care.”

The ACLU added, “The evidence we presented at trial included expert testimony regarding unconstitutional medical and mental health care, the harmful psychological effects of isolation and conditions in isolation units, and inadequate health care staffing.

The ACLU provided expert testimony, including that of Pablo Stewart M.D., who testified, “I also reviewed medical records of 15 of the 23 patients in ADCRR custody who have died by suicide from 2019 to September 2021.”

The order is preceded by Judge Silver’s 2022 decision of Constitutional violations due to “‘failing to provide incarcerated people at the Arizona’s prisons minimally adequate medical and mental health care.’” Silver also cited issues related to solitary confinement.

Judge Silver added the substantial changes and the scope of her order are necessary given the “unconstitutional substantial risk of serious harm” to people in Arizona’s custody, the state’s intransigence and failure to abide by a past settlement agreement and court orders, and because ADCRR “knowingly created documents in a false or misleading manner.”

The court order said, “In light of these requirements, the Court has reviewed the experts’ recommendations and has adopted only those recommendations necessary to correct the constitutional violations at issue.”

The order details Arizona prison officials must deliver healthcare in a timely fashion, provide proper documentation and consistent checkups for prisoners, maintain adequate environments to administer healthcare, and adhere to specific requirements for hiring healthcare administrators.

The court also detailed programs and protocols that will have higher standards in order to increase the quality of care for prisoners. Some of these programs include mortality reviews, reports on near-deaths and other serious events and  monitoring clinical equipment.

Systemic improvements outside of the healthcare issue, the court found, include language translation services, storing records electronically, and more thorough staffing procedures.

The order articulates relief – because of the degree of neglect they received – for a subclass of imprisoned individuals that fit into four key conditions: under maximum custody, housed in specific detention units pursuant to DO 804, placed under mental health watch and placed in close management.

The ACLU argued the standards have been placed upon the Arizona State prison system to increase accountability and avoid negligent practices.

The case of Jensen v. Shinn, which has been active for a decade, has come much closer to a verdict after this order passed. The involved parties “have 30 days to provide Judge Silver any comments on the remedial order before it becomes final.”

ACLU National Prison Project Director David Fathi stated. “‘We hope that with this powerful order, Arizona officials will finally comply with the Constitution, abide by the rule of law, and respect the rights and dignity of the thousands of people in their custody.’”

Parts of the statements focused on the clients themselves. Fathi noted what they suffered has been “‘unconscionable.’”

“Arizona’s prison walls for too long concealed immense suffering and needless death. Finally, there is a path forward,” said Rita Lomio, a staff attorney at the Prison Law Office. “This order would not have been possible without the brave people who testified from their hospital beds and prison cells.”

“The trial laid bare the significant harm that living in isolation causes to people who are incarcerated, especially people with serious mental illness living in such conditions,” said Maya Abela, an attorney with the Arizona Center for Disability Law.

Abela added, “With this order, ADCRR is required to take steps to address those harms and ensure constitutional living conditions and appropriate mental health services are provided to people in isolation units.”

ACLU of Arizona legal director Jared Keenan said, “‘While we welcome today’s order, it does not erase the decades of suffering that many have endured in Arizona’s prisons.’”

Daniel Barr of the Phoenix office of Perkins Coie LLP acknowledged that “‘This day was over a decade in coming.’”

Representation included “the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, the ACLU of Arizona, Prison Law Office, Arizona Center for Disability Law, and the law firm of Perkins Coie LLP.”

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