Yesterday we reported on the federal class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU, Prison Law Office, and others on behalf of inmates in Arizona’s state prisons. The suit claims that inmates are subject to cruel and unusual punishment due to lack of adequate medical and mental health care, and inhumane conditions in solitary confinement.
The Arizona Republic‘s Bob Ortega–who has a track record of strong reporting on the state’s brutal prison system–has a lengthy article on the subject. Drawing both from the lawsuit and from its own correspondence and interviews with prisoners and corrections staff, the article presents a devastating picture of what life in solitary confinement is like for prisoners with mental illness in Arizona.
“In two decades of prison litigation, this is one of the most broken systems I’ve seen,” David Fathi, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said Tuesday. “The indifference to the needs of desperately ill people is shocking. And the gratuitous cruelty we see in Arizona’s SMUs (special management units, or solitary confinement) is unlike anything we’ve ever seen even in other states’ Supermax prisons.”…
While many states, including California, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Ohio and Wisconsin, bar solitary confinement for inmates diagnosed with serious mental illness because extreme social isolation and sensory deprivation makes them deteriorate psychologically, Arizona routinely places mentally-ill inmates in long-term solitary confinement and uses solitary cells to house suicidal prisoners, according to the suit and inmates.
Dustin Brislan, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, is a seriously mentally ill inmate at the Eyman state prison who has repeatedly cut himself and been placed on suicide watch.
In a letter to The Republic, Brislan wrote: “Not only are the mentally ill forced to spend up to 24 hours in small windowless cells, but (we) are subject to harassment. Here at SMU-1 watch pod, the lights are left on all night long. At Browning Unit watch pod, the suicide watches aren’t given mattresses to sleep on. They sleep on cold steel. I know this because I’ve been on watch 6-7 times.”
He wrote that the conditions “make prisoners’ mental illnesses worse.” “We’ve got nowhere to turn for help,” he wrote. “Several people have committed suicide.”
Seven of the 10 most recent suicides reported by the department were by prisoners in solitary confinement, even though those prisoners make up only one-tenth of the state prison population. One of those was Karot Phothong.
While in isolation at the Florence prison, he repeatedly asked to be seen by mental-health staff because he was suicidal. According to the suit, “nothing was done for him, and he committed suicide by hanging on Jan. 28.” Five other deaths in solitary in the past year remain under investigation.
The lawsuit alleges that prisoners on suicide watch are forced awake by correctional officers every 10 to 30 minutes, round-the-clock, and that the watch cells are filthy, the walls and food slots so routinely smeared with blood and feces that they are referred to as the “feces cells.”
Prisoners in solitary receive two cold meals a day and are allowed to leave the cells no more than three times a week for a shower and a maximum of two hours’ exercise in a windowless, empty concrete “rec pen” cell, according to the lawsuit.
“These conditions are gratuitously cruel” and lead to self-injury and deteriorating mental conditions, the ACLU’s Fathi said. “There are no penological nor security justification for those kinds of conditions.”
Corrections officials told attorneys that it doesn’t keep records of mental-health programming provided to prisoners in solitary confinement. But it appears to be minimal.
According to the suit, one mentally ill prisoner in isolation at the Eyman prison, Robert Gamez, wasn’t seen by a psychiatrist in four years, despite numerous referrals. As of November, four of the six prisons housing seriously mentally-ill prisoners, including Eyman, had no psychiatrist on staff.
On her last day of work last June, the only psychiatrist at the Perryville prison e-mailed Ryan after staff at the Florence prison, 90 miles away, asked her to prescribe or renew medications for patients there that she had never met or treated. She refused.
Read the full article here.