Ariz. lawsuit over solitary confinement, healthcare echoes Calif. cases

Judge gave approval for inmates at 10 Ariz. prisons to pursue a class-action case alleging unconstitutionally poor prison health and psychiatric care

By Paige St. John
Los Angeles Times

PHOENIX, Ariz. — A federal appeals court has given the green light for a prisoner class-action lawsuit over alleged civil rights violations in the use of solitary confinement and delivery of healthcare to go forward — in Arizona.

The Arizona State Prison Complex near Tucson. A federal appeals judge Thursday gave approval for inmates at 10 Arizona prisons to pursue a class-action case alleging unconstitutionally poor prison health and psychiatric care. (Arizona Department of Corrections)

The case echoes the historic prisoner civil rights cases that have kept California's prison system under federal control in many ways, including involving many of the same lawyers and the lead judge writing Thursday's opinion.

A spokesman for the Arizona Department of Corrections said the state "disagrees" with the decision but, pending appeal, would not comment on details of the ruling. 

"Today’s decision does not change the fact that the factual allegations made in this lawsuit are still merely allegations," said spokesman Doug Nick. "The allegations are not accurate, and the Department of Corrections looks forward to vigorously challenging them and presenting our case at trial."

The litigation covers conditions within Arizona's 10 state prisons, housing about 33,000 inmates. It is now set to go to trial in October.

Thursday's opinion, written by Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, upholds a federal district court ruling that Arizona inmates can press a class-action claim against the state. The underlying lawsuit alleges "inadequate staffing, outright denials of care, lack of emergency treatment, failure to stock and provide critical medication, grossly substandard dental care, and failure to provide therapy and psychiatric medication to mentally ill inmates," Reinhardt wrote.

In the opinion, Reinhardt characterized the case as painting a "grim picture of [Arizona's] operations."

The Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, alongside the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project and various prisoners' rights groups, also alleges that Arizona subjects its state inmates to "systemic" cruel and unusual punishment by holding them in isolation cells where the lights are always turned on, there is inadequate food and no outdoor exercise for months at a time.

Prison Law Office attorney Don Specter called the case a "combination" of the major class-action lawsuits in California that wound up with the state under federal orders to reduce crowding and with its medical system run by a court-appointed official.

"Although it’s an Arizona case, the court’s class-action ruling has very significant implications for prison and jail litigation here in California and throughout the 9th Circuit," Specter said, "because it recognizes that all prisoners are at risk in a correctional facility that has inadequate care and imposes solitary confinement."

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