More than 33,000 inmates being held in Arizona’s ten prisons are filing a class action lawsuit against the state, alleging they have been denied proper medical and mental health care while behind bars. The prisons are being accused of failing to hire enough medical staff, denying inmates’ access to medical specialists, refusing to fill drug prescriptions, and withholding basic mental health care to inmates suffering from suicidal thoughts and mental illnesses.
“The State of Arizona has long ignored the basic needs of people confined in its prisons, including the constitutional mandate to provide adequate health care,” David Fathi, the director of the National Prison Project at the ACLU, said in a statement. “Prisoners have suffered unnecessarily and even died while waiting for basic care.”
The ACLU and the Prison Law Office first filed the lawsuit against Arizona back in 2012. In their court documents, they detailed examples of prisoners being forced to wait years to receive treatment for health problems like fractured bones and broken teeth, as well as the deterioration of prisoners’ mental health after they were held in solitary confinement in small windowless cells with lights left on 24 hours a day.
They also documented some of the horrific consequences of ignoring inmates’ medical needs. For instance, one inmate died from cancer after his pleas for medical attention were ignored for two years and his liver swelled to four times its natural size. A pregnant prisoner was left alone in solitary confinement while she suffered a miscarriage. After an inmate suffered a heart attack and was told to wait several days for a follow-up medical appointment, he had another heart attack and died the next day. A severely mentally ill inmate bled to death after his second suicide attempt, as prison guards watched on and failed to intervene.
“In two decades of prison litigation, this is one of the most broken systems I’ve seen,” Fathi said back when the lawsuit was first introduced. “The indifference to the needs of desperately ill people is shocking.”
The allegations in the lawsuit are consistent with the same issues that outside investigations uncovered as early as 2009. According to the Arizona Republic, at least 37 inmates needlessly died over the past several years as a result of neglect. The paper also reported that the suicide rate in Arizona’s prisons is 60 percent higher than the national average, and half of those suicides occur among prisoners who are subjected to solitary confinement.
Over the past two years, the legal challenge has been delayed because the state argued the inmates’ allegations weren’t similar enough to constitute a class action suit. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected that argument this past week, effectively clearing the lawsuit for trial. Its class action status ensures that it applies to every prisoner in Arizona, which has the sixth highest incarceration rate in the nation.
This isn’t the only health care scandal plaguing Arizona. For the past several weeks, the nation has been grappling with a crisis at the Veterans Health Administration, after evidence emerged that some vets have died after being forced to wait months for critical medical services. Many of those allegations have centered on the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system in Arizona, where officials were maintaining secret waiting lists to obscure the fact that so many veterans were waiting to see a doctor.
But unlike veterans, the medical issues that plague prison inmates don’t necessarily elicit mass public outrage. Although the lawsuit in Arizona is hardly the only evidence that prisons are neglecting neglecting inmates’ basic health needs, and essentially allowing them to die from treatable diseases, the issue hasn’t inspired the same type of political pressure in response.