Scorching Complaint Against Arizona Prisons

     PHOENIX (CN) – Arizona provides “grossly inadequate” medical care to prisoners, subjecting them to “unnecessary pain and suffering, preventable injury, amputation, disfigurement, and death,” inmates and an advocacy group say in a federal class action.
     The 78-page complaint rehearses a litany of abuses inside state prisons.
     It claims Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan and the state’s Interim Director of Health Services Richard Pratt provide prisoners with health care that “is grossly inadequate and subjects all prisoners to a substantial risk of serious harm, including unnecessary pain and suffering, preventable injury, amputation, disfigurement, and death.”
     The complaint continues: “For years, the health care provided by defendants in Arizona’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs. Critically ill prisoners have begged prison officials for treatment, only to be told ‘be patient,’ ‘it’s all in your head,’ or ‘pray’ to be cured. Despite warnings from their own employees, prisoners and their family members, and advocates about the risk of serious injury and death to prisoners, defendants are deliberately indifferent to the substantial risk of pain and suffering to prisoners, including deaths, which occur due to defendants’ failure to provide minimally adequate health care, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”
     Plaintiffs, including the Arizona Center for Disability Law, say prison staff members are not properly trained to handle medical emergencies, “and as a result of this failure to respond properly and timely to emergencies, prisoners suffer avoidable harm and injuries, including unnecessary deaths.”
     The complaint states: “In July 2010, correctional officers at the Tucson prison stood by and watched a severely mentally ill prisoner named Tony Lester bleed to death after his second suicide attempt. Mr. Lester, who had paranoid schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, and auditory hallucinations, had been taken off suicide watch, taken off his medications, and housed in the general population, where he was given a hygiene kit that included a razor. He used the razor blade to slit his throat, groin, and wrists, and he wrote the word ‘VOICES’ in his blood on an envelope. An ADC internal investigation found that the four responding officers stood by and did not administer any basic first aid. One officer told investigators he didn’t want to be ‘wallowing through’ Mr. Lester’s blood, and another said his limited training did not teach him how to stop bleeding. When an internal investigator asked one officer, ‘So you guys just stood around for 23 minutes and watched this guy bleed to death?’, the officer stated that his response was to call Mr. Lester’s name and to try to elicit a reaction.”
     The class, which consists of Arizona prisoners, claims that Ryan and Pratt have “ignored repeated warnings of the inadequacies of the health care system and of the dangerous conditions in their isolation units that they received from inmate grievances, reports from outside groups, and complaints from prison personnel, including their own staff.”
     The lawsuit cites a series of emails sent by the deputy medical director for psychiatry at the Eyman prison to Ryan and former health services director Michael Adu-Tutu, which stated that prisoners “are not receiving a reasonable level of psychiatric care. We are out of compliance with our own policies regarding minimum frequency of contact with a provider, as well as community standards for adequate care. The lack of treatment represents an escalating danger to the community, the staff and the inmates.”
     According to the class: “Defendants have a policy and practice of failing to provide timely access to health care and are deliberately indifferent to the risk of harm and injury to prisoners that results from this systemic failure. To request health care, prisoners must submit a HNR form, describing the need for medical, dental, or mental health attention, regardless of whether they have informed medical staff about their symptoms. Prisoners face numerous barriers in submitting this required form: oftentimes, there are no HNR forms in living units; staff give prisoners photocopies of HNR forms that are later rejected for not being originals; correctional officers refuse to provide forms to prisoners or discourage them from filing them; and officers read completed HNRs and tell prisoners they are not sick, and refuse to accept or forward the HNR to health care personnel.”
     Even if the HNR is completed and sent to medical staff, prisoners may face weeks of delay before receiving medical care, or may be placed on a waiting list, the complaint states. The situation is worsened because there “are no standardized protocols or timeframes dictating deadlines by which a prisoner requesting care must receive a face-to-face appointment with a nurse, doctor, or other clinician,” the class claims.
     The class seeks declaratory judgment that the defendants violate prisoners’ constitutional rights, and an order requiring defendants to “develop and implement, as soon as practical, a plan to eliminate the substantial risk of serious harm that prisoner plaintiffs and members of the plaintiff class suffer due to defendants’ inadequate medical, mental health, and dental care, and due to defendants’ isolation policies.”
     The class is represented by Dan Pochoda of the ACLU Foundation of Arizona, the Prison Law Office of Berkeley, Calif., attorneys with Perkins Coie of Phoenix and Jones Day of San Francisco, and Jennifer Alewelt with the Arizona Center for Disability Law.

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