A human-rights group is accusing Arizona of violating international law by improperly using “cruel isolation” for years at a time for non-violent or mentally ill inmates and depriving them of basic physical and mental health care.
In a lengthy report issued Tuesday, Amnesty International writes that of the more than 2,900 inmates being held in Arizona’s maximum-security facilities, more than 2,000 are confined by themselves in windowless cells for up to 24 hours a day in conditions that amount to sensory deprivation.
The group said it obtained its statistics from the Arizona Department of Corrections.
Corrections spokesman Bill Lamoreaux confirmed that more than 2,000 inmates are confined in the cells by themselves but said that neither he nor Director Charles Ryan could comment on the report because it references ongoing litigation.
Based on interviews with prison staff members and inmates, Amnesty International describes the 7.5-by-10-foot isolation cells as being devoid of any natural light and writes that inmates in those cells aren’t given inadequate opportunities to shower or exercise — at most six hours a week but sometimes far less than that.
“The cumulative effects of the conditions, particularly when imposed for a prolonged or indefinite period, constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, in violation of international law,” according to the report.
The report points to the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits treatment that causes physical pain or mental suffering and stipulates: “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”
The group said that Arizona’s isolation system has led some inmates to commit suicide, caused depression and anxiety, and worsened pre-existing mental illnesses.
Citing statistics that Amnesty International staff say they obtained from the corrections department, the group said that at least 43 inmates committed suicide in Arizona’s adult prisons between October 2005 and April 2011 and that at least 22 of those inmates were being housed in isolation cells.
Lamoreaux said there were actually 52 suicides in that time period but did not provide a breakdown of which of them were being isolated.
Carl ToersBijns, a former deputy warden at a state prison in Florence, said that Amnesty International’s description of the cells is accurate and that far too many inmates are held there for prolonged periods of time.
“This is a red flag,” ToersBijns said. “People are dying and people are being abused and neglected.”
ToersBijns said in one case that he still thinks about, he saw a mentally ill inmate sitting in his cell, naked on the toilet and rubbing his swollen, blistered feet with his own feces.
When ToersBijns asked guards about the inmate, he said they told him that the inmate had been kept in the isolation cell for five years because he had taken a nurse hostage during an attempted escape, and that nurses refused to treat him.
The inmate, who was convicted of kidnapping and armed robbery, is still housed there.
ToersBijns said the 48-year-old inmate, who still has 32 years on his prison term, never should have been put in isolation because of his mental illness and likely will die there because he’s physically aggressive and won’t ever get a security downgrade.
“The culture in Arizona is that those who are put in super-max units are indeed the worst of the worst, they don’t deserve to be able to go back down to a lower custody,” he said. “But they’re human beings. We as a society took the responsibility of putting them in prison, but along with that responsibility is a requirement for us to make sure they’re not deprived of basic rights they’re entitled to by the Constitution.”
He said some of the practices he saw while working at the department constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
Amnesty International is calling on Arizona’s Department of Corrections to stop using the isolation cells unless as a last resort and only for inmates who pose a serious and continuing threat. The group also urged the department to provide an incentive program for inmates to work their way out of being held in the cells, improve conditions overall and provide prisoner educational and rehabilitation programs for all maximum-custody inmates.
Amnesty International’s report comes on the heels of a March 6 lawsuit filed against the corrections department alleging that Arizona prisons don’t meet the basic requirements for providing adequate medical and mental health care to inmates and that prisoners face dangerous delays and outright denials in receiving treatment.
Among its allegations, the lawsuit contends that a prison medical staff’s failure to diagnose an inmate’s metastasized cancer resulted in the man’s liver enlarging to where his stomach looked like a full-term pregnant woman’s belly.
Another inmate who had a history of prostate cancer had to wait more than two years for a biopsy. And nothing was done for another inmate who suffered from depression when he asked staff members for help because he was suicidal, according to the lawsuit. He later killed himself in an isolation cell, the lawsuit said.