Friday, October 17, 2014

Arizona settles legal battle over inappropriate use of solitary confinement and inadequate medical, mental healthcare in state's prisons

Earlier this week, the Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC) reached an agreement with the ACLU and the Prison Law Office to terms of settlement in the long-running legal battle over the treatment of inmates by the state's prisons. Among others things, the settlement requires the DOC to fulfill performance standards for medical and mental healthcare. It also stipulates that DOC will change rules for placing inmates with mental illnesses into solitary confinement, and it increases the number of hours those in solitary confinement are allowed out of their cells. The DOC agrees to limit the use of pepper spray to only those cases in which an inmate poses an "imminent threat" -- that is, DOC officers will no longer use it against inmates for "passive resistance to placement in restraints or refusal to follow orders." Additionally, the inmates' attorneys will be allowed to visit the prisons to ensure that these standards are met. As The Arizona Capitol Times's Howard Fische reports:

Don Specter, an attorney with the Prison Law Office, said this deal, which must be approved by U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake, is more than just his organization and the American Civil Liberties Union accepting on faith that things will get better.


“We will be able to tour the prisons to check ourselves to see whether they’re providing adequate care,” he said.  “And we will also get a lot of documentation.”


The deal comes four months after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals gave the go-ahead for the case, alleging inadequate health care, to be handled as a class-action lawsuit.


Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for the appellate court, said the attorneys for the inmates provided detailed allegations of everything from “outright denials of health care” to improper isolation policies. And they also had information on how spending on certain services dropped by more than a third over a two-year period even as inmate population did not.


But Reinhardt, in refusing to require each inmate to prove his or her rights were violated, said the claims alleged “systemic failures” in the prison’s health care system “that expose all inmates to a substantial risk of serious harm.” And if that is the case, Reinhardt said that would require a wholesale revamp of the agency’s policies — and not simply correcting the problems of the 13 inmates who filed the original 2012 lawsuit.

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