Prisoners with Mental Illness Suffer — and Die — in Arizona’s Solitary Confinement Cells

by | March 7, 2012

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.

James Ridgeway and Jean Casella

James Ridgeway (1936-2021) was the founder and co-director of Solitary Watch. An investigative journalist for over 60 years, he served as Washington Correspondent for the Village Voice and Mother Jones, reporting domestically on subjects ranging from electoral politics to corporate malfeasance to the rise of the racist far-right, and abroad from Central America, Northern Ireland, Eastern Europe, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia. Earlier, he wrote for The New Republic and Ramparts, and his work appeared in dozens of other publications. He was the co-director of two films and author of 20 books, including a forthcoming posthumous edition of his groundbreaking 1991 work on the far right, Blood in the Face. Jean Casella is the director of Solitary Watch. She has also published work in The Guardian, The Nation, and Mother Jones, and is co-editor of the book Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. She has received a Soros Justice Media Fellowship and an Alicia Patterson Fellowship. She tweets @solitarywatch.

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  • Alan CYA # 65085

    @murtle One can imagine the quality of your work given your feelings toward those in your care. If I felt that way about my clients I would change my job. Then again it is most likely a profitable cake walk for you for I’m sure you avoid your nursing duties.

    @flounder Pedophiles and rapists are taken care of by the inmates themselves for they too have family.

    Only about 3-4% have murder convictions. Most are in prison for drug related charges. People take drugs because they have lost hope of a better life.

    Crime should be punished but no one should be tortured and by doing so it only makes the person worst. Do you really want to encounter their anger when they are finally released? It is in your interest and everyone else that they exit better than when they entered.

  • flounder

    Fed hope. Maybe you should feed hope to the baby the molsted or grandmother they rapped. Or the guy who was minding his own business on the way to work but got shot in a Robbery. Why are you so concerned about low life human beings that do nothing but inflict damage on Society. SMU is for real dirt bags these are not guys who go caught shoplifting they are real killers murders and pedophiles etc.

  • murtle@aolcom

    I am a nurse the conditions there are fine not as bad as everyone thinks.
    The hole is really not a hole like people think.
    These inmates are dirtbags and so are the people that support them.
    They get free TV, Free meals, free religion, free medical.
    They have done the most horrible crimes ever and want to be treated like movie stars sorry you are an inmate and prison is not made to be comfortable but humane and the conditions are humane so everyone stop bitching!!!

  • Isatu

    This is torture plain and simple

  • Looks like for the first time, there are going to be many questions asked about Arizona prison and what goes on inside including solitary confinement. I have been contacted by numerous reporters to talk about the conditions but so far, the political climate is still “wait and see” since this ACLU lawsuit will drag out for years..This is a repeat of the CA lawsuit and some of the same attorneys involved ~~ interesting days ahead but one thing is for sure, there are a lot of prisoners dying inside Arizona prisons today and more in the future if this isn’t resolved soon.

  • Joshlyn

    sick AZ state just sick well done thanks for wiping your but with the dignety of the usa safe to say you flushed are bill of rights doun the craper with good name of are nashions humanity just sick may thare be light in the darknes of justice

  • Well, something should be fixed about this, these guys need to be fed hope or something.

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