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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘Cruel’ Prison Conditions Decried in Arizona

(CN) - Arizona keeps thousands of prisoners in extreme isolation, with no access to fresh air, natural light and regular exercise. Alone, malnourished and often mentally unstable, the inmates sit in tiny, dirty cells with blood and excrement caked to the walls, in violation of international standards, according to a report from Amnesty International.

The report documents the human rights group's concerns about the conditions of the Arizona Department of Correction's Special Management Units (SMU) and other maximum-security isolation facilities.

On any given day, more than 3,000 prisoners out of a total prison population of around 40,000, including women and children as young as 14, experience such conditions in Arizona prisons, according to Amnesty International.

"SMU prisoners are confined, most of them alone, for nearly 24 hours a day in sparsely furnished cells which are designed to reduce visual and environmental stimulation," the report states. "The only natural light source comes from a skylight in the area beyond the cell tiers, with little natural light filtering into the cells. The lighting in the cells is controlled by guards, and remains on 24 hours a day, although reportedly dimmed at night. It is reported that little fresh air enters the SMU cells or housing pods, which become hot and stuffy in summer when temperatures are regularly above 100 degrees Fahrenheit."

Staffing shortages and indifference have allowed conditions in several SMUs to deteriorate far below international standards for holding dangerous prisoners in solitary confinement, the group says.

For those who are sentenced to life or death row, isolation is commonplace, but dangerous inmates are not the only ones confined to isolation. The report claims that prisoners sometimes spend months and even years in isolation for relatively minor jailhouse infractions.

"Amnesty International was told by an advocacy organization that had worked on prison issues for many years that a violation for three, even minor, rules within a 90-day period can result in a major write-up which could lead to a prisoner being sent to the SMU," according to the report. "The organization viewed the record in one case that showed a prisoner had his custody level raised from level 3 to level 5, resulting in SMU assignment, for offences which included throwing liquid on another inmate (causing no injury), feigning a seizure and refusing to come to the cell door to be restrained." (Parentheses in original.)

The conditions have resulted in a sharp increase in prisoner suicides in recent years, the group says.

"At least 43 suicides are listed as having taken place in Arizona's adult prisons in the five and a half years from October 2005 to April 2011, with several more cases to June 2011 still under investigation," the report states, adding that "36 of 37 cases where Amnesty International obtained information on the units where the suicides took place, 22 (60 percent) took place in maximum custody isolation facilities." (Parentheses in original.)

Prisoners have been pursuing similar claims, while attacking an allegedly substandard prison health care system, in a class action lawsuit since 2010. One day after a federal judge dismissed the third amended complaint in March 2012 for lack of prosecution, the same plaintiffs filed a new suit alleging the same claims.

The Amnesty International report repeats many of the allegations brought up in the class action, including the claim that guards regularly deny proper nutrition to prisoners in SMUs, figuring that the inmates need less food since they do not exercise.

Amnesty International says it was denied access to the state's largest SMU facility during a fact-finding trip last summer. The report relies primarily on letters from prisoners and intelligence gathered by prisoner-advocacy groups, as well as information provided in the class action.

In an interview with Courthouse News, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Corrections attributed the barred access to a scheduling conflict. There was an execution the week that the investigators arrived, and the department's director was out of town afterward, according to the ADOC. Citing the pending class action, the spokesman refused to comment further.

Amnesty International says unsanitary cells also plague prison isolation units, many of which hold inmates with undiagnosed or undertreated mental health issues.

"In addition to the above concerns, conditions in some of the SMU housing pods are reported to have become increasingly unsanitary in recent years, with food, urine and faeces stuck onto walls," the report states, using a British spelling variant. "Prisoners have alleged that they are not provided with adequate cleaning materials for their cells. It is alleged that steam-cleaning is no longer regularly done and that there are many isolated cases of staph infection in the units. Amnesty International is concerned at the health risks to inmates of these conditions, including health concerns about inmates having to eat meals in their cells, given the enclosed cellular environment, the close proximity of the toilet and sink and reports that food ports are covered with dirt, grease and blood."

Amnesty International says that ADOC has "no formal policy to exclude the seriously mentally ill from SMU." The extreme isolation, and lack of exercise and activity, have caused previously healthy prisoners to develop mental-health issues, according to the report. Meanwhile, those with pre-existing conditions have allegedly worsened. The group says there is no psychiatrist on duty at the state's largest SMU facility.

ADOC scores its inmates' mental health on a one-to-five scale, giving fives to inmates with the most acute issues.

"The organization has been told by several sources, including a source close to the prison's mental health service, that there is serious under-reporting of mental illness in SMU, with particular concern about under-diagnosis of prisoners within the Serious Mental Illness (SMI) range of MH4," the report states. "It was alleged that there are many prisoners in SMU who have a 'high need' for mental health services (MH4) but have been given a lower score of MH3 and are thus not receiving the specialised treatment they require. Amnesty International was also told that MH5 prisoners treated at Phoenix may be placed in SMU once they have been 'stabilised' and may move between the two units during their incarceration; some are reportedly held in SMU because of a lack of space in the mental health unit." (Parentheses in original)

Arizona has the sixth-highest incarceration rate in the nation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's office did not respond to a request for comment.

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