Judge rules Arizona prisons violate constitutional rights; Oklahoma schedules 25 executions over next 2 years


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Arizona’s unconstitutional prisons

A U.S. District Judge ruled last week that Arizona has violated incarcerated peoples’ constitutional rights by failing to provide adequate medical and mental health care for years.

The long-running civil rights lawsuit started in 2012 with a complaint by the ACLU on behalf of the more than 33,000 prisoners in Arizona’s private-run prisons.

For years, the health care provided by Defendants in Arizona’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs. Critically ill prisoners have begged prison officials for treatment, only to be told “be patient,” “it’s all in your head,” or “pray” to be cured. Despite warnings from their own employees, prisoners and their family members, and advocates about the risk of serious injury and death to prisoners, Defendants are deliberately indifferent to the substantial risk of pain and suffering to prisoners, including deaths, which occur due to Defendants’ failure to provide minimally adequate health care, in violation of the Eighth Amendment

The Arizona Department of Corrections settled the lawsuit in 2015, agreeing to take steps to improve medical care inside its prisons. However, the state continually failed to uphold the terms of the settlement, resulting in over $2.5 million in fines from the court.

Fed up with Arizona’s refusal to provide healthcare to inmates, District Judge Roslyn Silver (Clinton-appointee) brought the case to trial. In a court order released last week, Silver found that the state’s “deliberate indifference” to the health of inmates led to preventable injuries, suffering, and 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. Defendants’ health care system is plainly grossly inadequate. Defendants have been aware of their failures for years and Defendants have refused to take necessary actions to remedy the failures. Defendants’ years of inaction, despite Court intervention and imposition of monetary sanctions, establish Defendants are acting with deliberate indifference to the substantial risk of serious harm posed by the lack of adequate medical and mental health care affecting all prisoners.

Further, Defendants keep thousands of prisoners in restrictive housing units where they are not provided adequate nutrition, nor are they provided meaningful out-of-cell time for exercise or social interaction. Defendants’ treatment of prisoners in restrictive housing units results in the deprivation of basic human needs. For years, Defendants have known of the deficiencies, highlighted by Court intervention and direction, and refused to take meaningful remedial actions. Therefore, Defendants are acting with deliberate indifference to the substantial risk of serious harm posed to prisoners in restrictive housing units.

The ACLU’s expert witnesses described the tortuous conditions that inmates experienced in the system:

Dr. Todd Wilcox, who has worked as a jail physician for 27 years, has been an expert for the plaintiffs on the Arizona trial since 2013 and was brought in again to make a 2021 report on conditions. One case Wilcox describes is that of a 69-year-old man whose lung cancer went undetected for years while in the system. After several red flags that should have been caught, and an eventual imaging that found the cancer, the prison staff apparently failed to act on it, according to the report. Even as the inmate’s health was deteriorating, the report suggests staff failed to provide pain management.

“He died a horrific and painful death as a result,” Wilcox wrote.

Arizona contracts out its prison health care to a private, for-profit company—since 2019, Centurion—leading to a profit incentive to keep medical expenses as low as possible.

The main culprit, according to [Deputy director of the ACLU National Prison Project Corene] Kendrick and others, as the source of the issues is the privatization of medical care in these facilities and the way it has been implemented. “With privatization, it just creates this extra layer of bureaucracy and unaccountability,” she said…

Kendrick explained that Arizona pays their medical contractors a flat rate to service the prisons, which comes out to $16.60 per inmate, per day. She said this creates a “perverse incentive” to spend as little time and money as possible in order to gain anything leftover as profit.

“That model is flawed,” said John Fabricius, the director of Arizonans for Transparency and Accountability in Corrections (ATAC), who has also served time between 2003 and 2018 in the Arizona prison system. “It rewards the private contractor for not providing medical care.”

Judge Silver is expected to order remedies in response to the constitutional violations, which could include the court taking over health care operations in state prisons.

Rikers inhumane jail

New York City somehow convinced a judge to give officials more time to fix Rikers Island jail, avoiding a federal takeover despite years of corruption, abuse, and deaths.

The most recent attempt to reform Rikers began around 2010 when the New York Times exposed a history of guards “encouraging inmates…to police themselves, leading to beatings and in one case the killing of an inmate.”

New York City has been sued in recent years by more than a half-dozen Rikers inmates claiming to have been the victims of beatings by prisoners while guards looked the other way, or worse, ordered the attacks. The city settled one case for $500,000, and another for just under $100,000… two Rikers guards had recruited inmates over three months last year to serve as “managers, foot soldiers and enforcers” to maintain order in a housing unit for adolescent men. The guards are also accused of training the inmates in how to restrain and assault their victims, and deciding where and when attacks would occur.

Over the following decade, the public learned of people held at Rikers for numerous years while awaiting a court hearing, the beating of mentally ill inmates, and the overuse of solitary confinement.

The situation has only deteriorated since the rise of Covid-19. 15 people died at Rikers in 2021 alone—from (according to officials) suicide, drug overdoses, and medical neglect—and nine have died so far in 2022. New York Judge Elizabeth Taylor stepped in last year, ordering the New York City Department of Correction to give incarcerated people greater access to medical care.

“Every day we hear from people in distress, in need of both emergency and routine medical care, and yet these calls for help regularly go unanswered,” said Brooke Menschel, director of Civil Rights and Law Reform at Brooklyn Defender Services. “The results are devastation, suffering, and death.”

Several detainee deaths in city jails have been due to “natural causes.” Some families and advocates believe the jail system’s inability to provide prompt and adequate medical care in crowded settings has contributed to these deaths.

Now, six months later, city officials have failed to improve conditions: “In April, there were 11,789 missed appointments, a 67% jump compared to December.” District Judge Laura Taylor Swain (Clinton-appointee) acknowledged that “people are dying” at Rikers, yet approved the city’s action plan to avoid a federal takeover. The city now has at least until November to improve its care of inmates, something advocates are skeptical will happen under the current administration:

…attorneys for the Legal Aid Society, who represent the plaintiffs in the case, and the federal monitor, who worked with the DOC to craft the plan, both called into question the city’s ability to improve conditions in the jail, even if the action plan is fully implemented.

“While the action plan certainly is a viable pathway forward, the monitoring team must acknowledge that given the decades of mismanagement, quagmire of bureaucracy, and limited proficiencies of many of the people who must lead the necessary transformation, serious concerns remain about whether the city and department are capable of fully and faithfully implementing this action plan with integrity,” the monitor wrote in a letter to Swain.

“This combined with the monitoring team’s serious concerns about the current conditions of the jails means the monitoring team cannot warrant that the action plan alone will be sufficient to address the danger, violence, and chaos that continue to occur daily,” [federal monitor Steve] Martin added.

  • Further reading: “Dispatch From Deadly Rikers Island: ‘It Looks Like a Slave Ship in There.’” The Marshall Project.

Oklahoma’s execution spree

Oklahoma’s Attorney General has scheduled 25 executions in the next 29 months following a judge’s ruling approving the state’s lethal injection protocol.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot (appointed by George W. Bush) ruled last month that it is not unconstitutional to use the sedative midazolam in executions. The drug has been in use since 2013 when states found it difficult to obtain thiopental and pentobarbital due to European embargos on selling them to prisons. The Supreme Court upheld the use of midazolam in 2015, despite a growing collection of evidence that it is an imperfect substitute that can cause pulmonary edema before death.

The state’s argument that its lethal injection protocol is unlikely to cause pain and suffering is undercut by its own track record. Oklahoma suspended executions in 2015 after the botched lethal injections of Charles Warner and Clayton Lockett in which a still-conscious Warner cried out, “my body is on fire.” Lockett writhed for 43 minutes before dying of a heart attack.

Friot concluded by quoting a previous and similar court case, saying, “the eighth amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death– something that, of course, isn’t guaranteed to many people, including most victims of capital crimes.”

Immediately following Friot’s ruling, Oklahoma AG John O’Connor (R) requested to execute 25 human beings on death row. The first execution is scheduled for August 25, with subsequent executions scheduled approximately every month through 2024.

One of the first scheduled to be put to death, Richard Glossip, was convicted of commissioning a murder based on the potentially coerced confession of the actual murderer. The man responsible for the killing, Justin Sneed, made a plea deal with prosecutors to testify against Glossip in order to escape the death penalty himself. There is no additional corroborating evidence of Glossip’s guilt. Furthermore, both the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals and an independent investigation convened by Oklahoma state lawmakers (most of whom are Republicans) found reason to believe Glossip is innocent.

…the investigation points out that neither jury in Glossip’s two trials was shown Sneed’s interrogation video, which lawyer Stan Perry said shows investigators mentioning Glossip six times in the first 20 minutes as the true mastermind behind the murder. “They planted in the mind of Sneed that Glossip did it,” Perry said. [Republican State Representative Kevin] McDugle said that Perry’s team showed the video to former jury members and asked if they would have found Glossip guilty had they seen it in court; they, apparently, replied in the negative. Also, the investigation alleges that Sneed was given a plea deal to finger Glossip…

McDugle accused the DA’s office of “gross misconduct,” adding, “We need to right this wrong” by giving Glossip another trial. Perry added that after his law firm did 3,000 hours of pro-bono work, interviewed 38 witnesses, and sifted through 12,000 documents, he believes that “no reasonable jury hearing the complete record and the uncovered facts in this report would have convicted Richard Glossip of capital murder.”