Settlement mandates overhaul of Arizona solitary confinement practices

Hands on prison bars
Solitary Confinement Case Settled

Disability advocates and the state of Arizona filed a comprehensive settlement in federal court October 14, requiring the state to implement a variety of limitations on its solitary confinement procedures and to improve health care and other services for inmates with mental illness.

“The Arizona Department of Corrections has agreed to changes that will save lives,” said Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, in a news release. “This settlement will bring more humane treatment for prisoners with serious health care needs, and the potential for their conditions to improve rather than worsen.”

Arizona’s prison system has long been notorious for its treatment of inmates with mental illness. In 2012, the Arizona Republic reported that in the two prior years alone, 37 preventable deaths occurred behind bars. The deceased inmates included “mentally ill prisoners locked in solitary confinement who committed suicide, inmates who overdosed on drugs smuggled into prison, those with untreated medical conditions and inmates murdered by other inmates.”

Later that year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, the Prison Law Office, the Arizona Center for Disability Law, Perkins Coie and Jones Day filed a class-action lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona.

It was filed on behalf of the estimated 33,000 inmates who had been “subjected to the medical, mental health, and dental care policies and practices of the ADC.”

In the past two years, multiple doctors attested through affidavits that prison officials repeatedly deny inmates prescription drugs and mocked them as they expressed anguish over intense pain and other symptoms, as described by Think Progress.

Under the terms of the settlement, which still must be approved by the federal court, the ADC must meet more than 100 health care performance measures. Among the new health requirements are provisions requiring that all prisoners receive appropriate vaccinations, cancer screenings and mammograms.

Prisoners locked up in single, maximum security cells, a practice commonly referred to as solitary confinement, must be afforded a minimum of 19 hours per week outside the cell, an increase from six.

Security personnel will also have new limitations on when they can use chemical agents, such as pepper spray, against inmates with mental illnesses. These tactics will now only be allowed when there’s an imminent risk, such as to prevent injury or to avoid an escape attempt by a prisoner.

The settlement requires the ADC to ask the Arizona Legislature for additional funding to assist with the settlement’s implementation.

The settlement filing comes one week before the parties were scheduled to go to trial, according to the Arizona Republic.

“This is one of the largest–if not the largest–prisoner settlements in recent years,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told Mother Jones.

Nationwide, an estimated 80,000 people are being held in solitary confinement, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. An estimated 45 percent of those inmates have mental illness.

The Arizona Center for Disability Law and Disability Rights Washington, which operates this Galaxy website, are part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and members of the National Disability Rights Network.