33,000 Arizona Prisoners Now Can Sue State over Health Care, Solitary Confinement

Affiliate: ACLU of Arizona
June 5, 2014 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO – Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously ruled that the American Civil Liberties Union and the Prison Law Office can move forward with a lawsuit against the state of Arizona on behalf of all 33,000 prisoners in the state’s 10 prisons and all future prisoners. The ruling is critical to obtaining necessary systemic changes to conditions of confinement in the Arizona Department of Correction (ADC), and is a key victory for civil rights plaintiffs throughout the country.

“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. Prisoners have suffered unnecessarily and even died while waiting for basic care,” said David Fathi, Director of the National Prison Project at the ACLU, who argued the case for the prisoners in the Court of Appeals. “This ruling brings us closer to requiring the executive and legislative branches to end their neglect and indifference once and for all.”

The groups filed the federal lawsuit in 2012, challenging years of inattention to the health needs of state prisoners and improper and excessive use of solitary confinement, resulting in serious harms and unnecessary deaths. Judge Neil V. Wake of the U.S. District Court in Phoenix certified the case as a class action in March 2013; today’s decision affirms that ruling.

The Court of Appeals listed failing to hire enough medical staff, failing to fill prescriptions, denying inmates access to medical specialists, adopting a de facto “extraction only” policy for dental issues, and depriving suicidal and mentally ill inmates access to basic mental health care.

The Court allowed the ACLU and the Prison Law Office to represent the prison population in Arizona as a class because all the prisoners shared a common interest in not being subjected to a “substantial risk of serious harm resulting from exposure to the [ADC’s] policies and practices governing health care.” “The Court rejected the state’s arguments that the prisoners don’t have enough in common to warrant class action status, adding that the state had a “fundamental misunderstanding” of the law:

[G]iven that every inmate in ADC custody is likely to require medical, mental health, and dental care, each of the named plaintiffs is similarly positioned to all other ADC inmates with respect to a substantial risk of serious harm resulting from exposure to the defendants’ policies and practices governing health care.

In addition to seeking adequate medical, mental health, and dental care for Arizona’s prisoners, the lawsuit challenges the state prisons’ use of solitary confinement.

“Among our plaintiffs are the seriously mentally ill and other prisoners whose mental health has markedly deteriorated in solitary confinement – weeks, months, sometimes years of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation,” said Don Specter, Director of the Prison Law Office. “Sometimes the damage is permanent. Arizona must stop this cruel and unusual punishment.”

The case, Parsons v. Ryan, is scheduled to go to trial in October 2014.

In addition to the ACLU and the Prison Law Office, other attorneys on the case are Perkins Coie LLP, Jones Day, and the Arizona Center for Disability Law.

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