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After Dozens Of Preventable Deaths, Arizona Agrees To Curb Its Most Egregious Prison Mistreatment

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

The state of Arizona will be bound to improve the care for inmates who told stories of rampant medical neglect, solitary confinement of the mentally ill, and overheating of inmates. A settlement filed Tuesday resolves a class action lawsuit on behalf of more than 33,000 prisoners in the state, which David Fathi, Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, called “one of the largest — if not the largest — prisoner settlements in recent years.”

The settlement can’t come soon enough. Affidavits from doctors attested to inmates denied basic medical care including prescription medications, and who were not just neglected but mocked as they expressed anguish over intense pain and other symptoms. Many of these inmates died, including a woman who died of cancer diagnosed just days before her death, and a man who died of AIDS-related pneumonia after prison staff ignored his request for an HIV test. In 2012, the Arizona Republic found that at least 37 inmates had died preventable deaths behind bars over the course of just two years. Many more inmates who didn’t die nonetheless suffered severe anguish and fear. One pregnant inmate suffered a miscarriage alone in solitary confinement, while another left in his wheelchair with an unchanged diaper developed sores and ulcers.

“In my more than three decades of doing this work, I have never seen such callous disregard demonstrated over and over again,” Dr. Robert Cohen wrote in his affidavit.

The settlement will require the Department of Corrections to meet some 100 health performance measures, as well as implement several reforms for the many severely mentally ill inmates in its custody. Because Arizona, like many states, is warehousing countless mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement — despite psychological evidence and court decisions finding the practice inhumane — the settlement will require prisons to provide mentally ill inmates with at least 19 hours outside their cells per week, and that time must include mental health treatment and programming. Other inmates in the most restrictive solitary confinement must be offered “no less than 6 hours per week of out-of-cell exercise.” It will also require that prison guards restrict their use of pepper spray on inmates with severe mental illness to cases of “imminent threat,” and only after other de-escalation procedures have been tried.

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It even includes a provision to address inmate overheating — albeit mandating temperature control in only the most limited form possible. “If a prisoner who is taking psychotropic medication suffers a heat intolerance reaction, all reasonably available steps will be taken to prevent heat injury or illness,” the agreement states. “If all other steps have failed to abate the heat intolerance reaction, the prisoner will be transferred to a housing area where the cell temperature does not exceed 85 degrees Fahrenheit.” As Mother Jones’ Shane Bauer, who has called his own time in U.S. solitary confinement a “living death,” puts it, “Those not on anti-psychotic meds though, can keep baking.”