ACLU Lawsuit Over Arizona Prison Health Care, Conditions Likely Headed to Trial

A class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of about 33,000 Arizona prisoners is likely headed to trial this fall.

Attorneys for the Arizona Department of Corrections had sought a summary judgment in the case, which would have prevented a trial, but U.S. District Judge Neil V. Wake denied that motion.

"It's going to pave the way for a trial," ACLU of Arizona executive director Alessandra Soler tells New Times.

The lawsuit against the state prisons department includes 17 claims, many of them alleging that the state doesn't provide proper health care for inmates. Other claims highlight various alleged sub-standard conditions at the prisons, like insufficient nutrition and a lack of recreation.

Soler says prison authorities haven't been eager to remedy the conditions, calling it a "sort of deliberate indifference from prison officials."

The lawsuit summarizes:

Prisoner Plaintiffs and the Plaintiff Class are housed in Arizona Department of Corrections ("ADC") state prisons, and seek declaratory and injunctive relief against Charles Ryan and Michael Pratt, (collectively, "Defendants") in their official capacities. Prisoner Plaintiffs and the Plaintiff Class are entirely dependent on Defendants for their basic health care. However, the system under which Defendants Ryan and Pratt provide medical, mental health, and dental care (collectively, "health care") to prisoners 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. 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. "Just as a prisoner may starve if not fed, he or she may suffer or die if not provided adequate medical care. A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society." Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. __, 131 S.Ct. 1910, 1928 (2011).
A report by the American Friends Services Committee found that the state's medical spending in prisons dropped by about $30 million after the services were privatized. In the first eight months of 2013, as the new health care provider Wexford took over, 50 people died in ADC custody, according to the report, while 37 people had died in the previous two years combined. Still, many of the allegations in the lawsuit predate the changing of providers.

Claims from the prisoners include delays in receiving health care or treatment, a failure to get medications, insufficient care for chronic diseases, low staffing levels, and more. On top of this, only part of the lawsuit focuses on medical care.

Other claims include poor dental care and mental-health treatment, a lack of recreation, cases of extreme isolation, constant lighting of the cells, limits on inmate property, and poor nutrition.

The ACLU alleges these things amount to constitutional violations, and is seeking an order to implement a plan to remedy these things.

ACLU of Arizona Legal Director Dan Pochoda released a statement saying the following in response to the judge's ruling against summary judgment for the state:

"As expected, Judge Wake saw there was no merit to the state's claims that there were no systemic problems within the prison system that needed to be fixed

For far too long, the state has ignored the basic medical and mental health needs of prisoners confined to the state's corrections system and this deliberate indifference has caused pain, suffering and even death of prisoners. The judge found that there was plenty of evidence to demonstrate that the state has failed to address the serious constitutional problems within its prison system, and we're looking forward to demonstrating that at the trial later this fall."

The original complaint, filed in 2012, can be seen below:

Parsons v. Ryan

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley