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‘Acting with deliberate indifference’: Judge finds Arizona fails to provide prisoners with adequate health care

The ruling marks the latest in a decade-long class action brought by Arizona prisoners.

(CN) — In a decade-long federal class action fight over Arizona’s prison conditions, a federal judge on Thursday ruled that the state’s privatized prison system failed to provide prisoners with adequate health care and has exposed some to harsh conditions in solitary confinement.

In Jensen v. Shinn, brought by Arizona prisoners, U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver wrote that the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry “failed to provide, and continues to refuse to provide, a constitutionally adequate medical care and mental health care system for all prisoners.”

"While this case involves an unusually large amount of evidence, there are only two basic questions," Silver wrote in the 200-page ruling. "Are Defendants violating the constitutional rights of Arizona’s prisoners through the existing medical and mental health care system? And are Defendants violating the constitutional rights of a subset of Arizona’s prisoners by almost round-the-clock confinement in their cells? The answer is yes to both questions.”

Judge Silver rescinded an earlier settlement agreement in July 2021 after she said the state failed to reach a number of benchmarks in reforming its health care practices.

“Defendants have failed to provide, and continue to refuse to provide, a constitutionally adequate medical care and mental health care system for all prisoners,” Silver wrote in Thursday’s ruling. “Defendants’ 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.”

In her order, Judge Silver asked both sides to nominate experts to help oversee changes in the prison system.

The ruling was lauded by the ACLU and the Prison Law Office in San Francisco, co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the case.

“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, in a statement. “We are heartened by this landmark decision, and expect state officials to comply with it immediately.” 

“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, in a statement. “The court’s order affirms this bedrock constitutional principle.”

A call for comment made to the Arizona Department of Corrections made after business hours Thursday was not immediately returned.

The case began in 2012 when a class of prisoners sued the state, claiming inadequate health care in the prisons led to “unnecessary pain and suffering, preventable injury, amputation, disfigurement, and death.”

Since then, the department has been held in contempt twice and fined millions as federal judges found it had failed to improve prison conditions during that time.

“Defendants’ years of inaction, despite Court intervention and imposition of monetary sanctions, establish Defendants are acting with deliberate indifference to the substantial risk of serious harm posed by the lack of adequate medical and mental health care affecting all prisoners," Silver wrote.

Categories / Civil Rights, Courts, Criminal

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