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Arizona Prisoners Denied Adequate Mental Health Care

The treatment of seriously mentally ill prisoners in Arizona is "appalling," according to a recent decision today by United States District Judge Carl Muecke in Phoenix.

Ruling in Casey v. Lewis, a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of all Arizona prisoners, Muecke found that numerous deficiencies in the prison mental health system "result in deliberate indifference to inmates' serious mental health needs such that the inmates' constitutional rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment are violated." Attorneys from the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C. and attorneys with the Arizona Civil Liberties Union brought the case for the prisoners.

Muecke rejected the prison officials' defense that these deficiencies are an unavoidable result of budgetary constraints. "The fact that the lack of staff and programming is partially a result of lack of funding from the legislature is not a defense to these constitutional violations," he wrote.

Arizona prison officials also discriminate unlawfully against female prisoners by failing to provide them mental health services comparable to those provided to men, Muecke found.

Muecke also found that the prison medical and dental care systems were unconstitutional at the time the lawsuit was filed. However, he found, the filing of the lawsuit caused prison officials to make numerous improvements, so that conditions were constitutional by the time of the trial. But, noting that "this Court cannot be assured that defendants will continue to implement the new programs," Muecke ordered prison officials to submit periodic reports on the status of the medical and dental care systems.

"It's a victory for basic human decency," said Stuart H. Adams, Jr., a lawyer for the National Prison Project. "A sentence to prison should not be a sentence to death or needless suffering because of a lack of medical or mental health care."

In a 186-page opinion, Muecke found that prison officials fail to provide sufficient mental health staff, provide inadequate mental health programming, and inappropriately use lockdown as a substitute for mental health treatment. He also found that prisoners with serious mental health needs experience unacceptable delays in assessments and treatment.

Muecke ordered the lawyers for both sides to meet and draft a proposed plan to remedy these deficiencies. The plan is to be filed with the Court by September 30, 1993.

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Related legal case

Casey v. Lewis