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Exasperated Federal Judge Issues Permanent Injunction to Arizona DOC in Healthcare Class-Action

by Matt Clarke

On April 7, 2023, a visibly annoyed U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver issued a highly-detailed permanent injunction (PI) specifying what must be done by the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry (DCRR) to meet minimum constitutional standards in providing prisoner healthcare and mental health care, as well as conditions in isolation.

As PLN previously reported, the Court found in June 2022 that healthcare and mental health care in the prison system was “plainly grossly inadequate,” and the conditions in its restrictive housing units were unconstitutional. [See: PLN, Dec. 2022, p.l.]

Before issuing the PI, Judge Silver noted that she was forced to throw out a six-year-old settlement because DCRR showed little interest in making the improvements it agreed to, despite $2.5 million in contempt-of-court fines.

“Given this history, the Court cannot impose an injunction that is even minutely ambiguous,” Silver wrote, “because Defendants have proven they will exploit any ambiguity to the maximum extent possible.”

The final PI includes “a specific number of key personnel that must be hired.” That number was determined by court-appointed experts Dr. Marc Stern, Dr. Bart Abplanalp and John McGrath. The court ordered DCRR to immediately hire the specified number of personnel, limiting the number of positions that could be filled with temporary hires to 15%.

The Court noted that it provided “significant detail regarding medical care, mental health care and the conditions imposed on [the subclass of prisoners in isolation] to remedy the egregious constitutional violations.”

“Moreover, the unusual scope of this injunction is informed by Defendants’ actions throughout the case,” the Court continued. “Despite their agreement and promise to the Court to do otherwise, Defendants have fought every aspect of this case at every turn.”

As Judge Silver noted, Defendants not only failed to perform obligations set forth in the previous agreement but also “kept inaccurate records and unreasonably misread the settlement’s requirements to their advantage.”

So the Court decided to impose “both quantitative and qualitative measures” on Defendants’ performance. It also appointed its own monitors to ensue Defendants’ compliance with the PI, which additionally provided for Plaintiffs’ attorneys to monitor compliance.

The PI is detailed in every aspect of medical and mental health care, including screening; staffing levels; timely provision of care and medications; mortality and suicide attempt reviews; electronic healthcare records; and treatment of specified diseases such as Hepatitis C and tuberculosis (TB). It also specifies relief for a large number of prisoners held in isolation, including provision of their medical and mental health care; guard staffing levels; daily hours out-of-cell and amount of out-of-cell activities; electronic record-keeping; building maintenance; and provision of food, bedding and clothing. See: Jensen v. Thornell, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61747 (D. Ariz.).

The Court followed up with an order on June 8, 2023, clarifying that its appointed experts would be paid by Defendants from sanctions imposed on them for previous contempt findings. See: Jensen v. Thornell, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 100268 (D. Ariz.).

After that, Judge Silver received an “Eyewitness Account from Subclass” in a letter from 19 state prisoners held at the Arizona State Prison Complex’s Kingman-Huachuca Unit, which is privately operated under contract by The GEO Group, Inc. While not responding directly to that letter, the Court noted that its PI specifically included private prisons contracted by DCCR. But since neither party had briefed the Court about conditions in those lockups, another order was issued on July 31, 2023, to provide that briefing that will “establish clear procedures and avoid future disputes regarding prisoners held at privately-run facilities.” See: Jensen v. Thornell, No. 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 132549 (D. Ariz.).

It is clear that the Court has had enough of DCRR’s obstinance and intends to force a sea change in the Arizona prison system. Plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from Perkins Cole LLP in Phoenix; the state and national arms of the American Civil Liberties Union; and Prison Law Office in Berkeley, California. 

Additional source: US News