An Arizona prisoner suffering from mental illness was pepper sprayed more than 40 times within an eight-month period. Sometimes, officers gassed him twice in one day.
Another incarcerated man told the court that corrections officers have taunted him toward self-harm.
A young woman who used to enjoy playing basketball now lies nearly paralyzed in a prison infirmary after medical staff failed to diagnose her multiple sclerosis for years.
The trial that brought these and other shocking accounts to light led U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver to rule on Thursday that health care in Arizona prisons is so bad, it violates the constitutional rights of incarcerated people.
The ruling was the result of a three-week trial held in the fall of 2021 after Silver rescinded a settlement agreement in a long-running prison health care lawsuit against the state.
At the trial, attorneys representing people in state prisons presented evidence that Arizona was providing substandard health care that resulted in unnecessary suffering and preventable deaths.
"Defendants have failed to provide, and continue to refuse to provide, a constitutionally adequate medical care and mental health care system for all prisoners," wrote Silver, calling the health care system “plainly grossly inadequate.”
Silver's findings were not news to people like Suzanne McMillan, whose incarcerated son has struggled to receive adequate health care at the Yuma prison. But the order did give McMillan a sense of validation.
"Prisoners know what it’s like in there. Families know how bad it is. I know what it's like," McMillan said. "I'm ecstatic that now the public is going to see what their tax dollars are going to. Personally, I'm ashamed that my taxes are funding this kind of negligence."
McMillan said the problems start at intake, where she says the medical staff fails to make proper diagnoses of newly arriving prisoners.
"They're just shuffled through like cattle," she said, "and nobody is really evaluated."
McMillan said she hopes whatever system is set up by the court that incarcerated people will finally receive proper care. "Because we are allowing these people to fall deeper and deeper into mental and physical illness while they're in prison and then eventually they are released back on the street."
'I chose to stand up for them knowing the consequences'
Dustin Brislan, a named plaintiff in the lawsuit who is incarcerated at the Eyman prison complex in Florence, called the ruling a “huge victory” after “so much unnecessary suffering.”
Brislan testified at the trial about his experiences with mental health care in Arizona prisons despite fears of retaliation.
He told the court that corrections officers taunted him and encouraged him to commit acts of self-harm.
"The officers actually encourage me to cut myself,” he told the court during the trial. “They say they want to see how bad I can get.”
In an email sent Friday, Brislan said he decided to be a named plaintiff in the lawsuit “because inmates needed a voice.”
“Inmates are not taught how to stand up for their rights, nor advocate for themselves,” he said. “I chose to stand up for them knowing the consequences.”
As a result of the ruling, Brislan said he would like the state to take control of the health care services back from private contractors, and for mental health care programming to be expanded.
“I would like to see more mental health staff hired,” Brislan said, “as well as less restrictions on mental health medications and more therapy offered.”
During the trial, Brislan and other incarcerated people testified that corrections officers frequently used pepper spray and pepper ball guns on people in Arizona prisons experiencing mental illness.
Brislan said they used several cans of pepper spray, which he called "foggers," on him while he was in a suicide watch cell.
According to custody and health care records presented during the trial, corrections officers pepper sprayed one prisoner, Rahim Muhammad, more than 40 times over eight months from December 2020 to July 2021. In one two-week period, Muhammad was pepper sprayed 15 times. Sometimes, officers gassed him twice a day. Other times, prison security staff shot him at close range with a pepper ball gun.
Brislan said all corrections staff working in mental health programs and in mental health housing should be equipped with body cameras. “And I would like for pepper ball guns to no longer be used on mentally ill inmates,” he said.
'Abhorrent systemic failure': Advocate points to privatization of prison services
John Fabricius spent 15 years in Arizona prisons. He is now a digital campaigner at Dream Corps Justice and an advocate for prison oversight through a nonprofit he created called Arizonans for Transparency and Accountability in Corrections.
“I am deeply pleased the United States District Court found that Director David Shinn and the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry have been deliberately indifferent to the care of the human beings we have placed in their custody,” Fabricius said. “For well over a decade since the Arizona Legislature mandated privatized health care, the deliberate acts and omissions of the current and past ADCRR administrations consistently ignored the corruption and inhumanity present in our prison system.”
Fabricius said he puts much of the blame for the unconstitutional conditions in the prisons on the privatized correctional health care model.
“The incessant desire of Arizona's political leadership to create profit for companies — at the expense of the health and lives of our most marginalized and isolated members of society — underpins the abhorrent systemic failure in the ADCRR,” he said. “These policies have led to untold suffering, needless infliction of pain, and death to Arizona citizens. Moreover, it cost Arizona taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars with net negative results.”
After the ruling from Silver, Fabricius said he was thinking of the people he grew close to while living for more than a decade in the Arizona prison system.
“I think about my friend Gary who went blind because the Arizona Department of Corrections and their privatized medical providers refused to give him timely treatment for a detached retina,” Fabricius said. “I think about my friend Bruce, a Vietnam veteran who suffered unbelievable misery for years in ADCRR because they refused to treat him and then misdiagnosed him. I think of the hundreds of similar cases where people I know suffered needlessly, painfully, and without hope. Today, I think about my friends that didn't survive the system.”
Fabricius said it was watching these tragic experiences that led him to his current work as an advocate for other directly impacted individuals.
Named plaintiff Shawn Jensen has been incarcerated in Arizona prisons for nearly 50 years. When told of Silver's ruling via email Thursday night, Jensen said he was "very happy."
"It's been an extended, arduous effort requiring measures of determination and resilience," Jensen said of the health care lawsuit.
"Meaningful medical care should not be shrouded in ambiguity, let alone often detached indifference," Jensen said. "The approach here at times is both absurd and laughable, because of the often knee-jerk response by simply handing out Tylenol or something similar.
"I have known and seen many who have deteriorated, and later died, needlessly," Jensen said. "It would be absurd, or irresponsible for me not to be here on their behalf."
Of his and others' struggles to get treatment for life-threatening conditions like cancer, Jensen said, "Prisoners in general either get worse, as I had, or some just simply don't survive."
Jensen blames the privatization of prison health care for unconstitutional conditions that exist today.
Speaking of Arizona's history of private correctional health care contractors, Jensen said, "Wexford, Corizon, and now Centurion all have a vested interest, to not diagnose, to not treat, to not send anyone out to a hospital. By doing so, they retain and make more money."
'Plainly grossly inadequate': Arizona prison health care system ruled unconstitutional
Kara Williams, a formerly incarcerated person who now works as a Smart Justice Organizer for the ACLU of Arizona, said the ruling was a win, “but now we have to hold them accountable.”
“I came home from prison and had to have emergency surgery because of the gross lack of care I received,” Williams said. She said the health care system in Arizona prisons was “a joke.”
“People are dying and have been for years,” Williams said. “At least now there is a spotlight on the issue."
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona prisoners, advocates urge changes to health care system