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Home / agencies / Human-rights group slams Arizona prison practices

Human-rights group slams Arizona prison practices

An inmate stands at his cell door Nov 4, 2009, at the maximum security facility at the Arizona State Prison in Florence. (AP Photo/Matt York)

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.

4 comments

  1. For reasons that are beyond my capability to understand, Arizona legislative leaders have failed over many years to demonstrate concern for what happens inside our prisons. Forget about having compassion for criminal offenders. What happens in our prisons affects budgets (including for other state agencies whose budgets are cut in order to fund the prisons), liability to the state, recidivism (which affects future victims), staff recruitment, and a plethora of additional problems.

    After Marcia Powell was murdered by prison staff in May 2009 when she was deliberately left for hours in an outdoor cage without shade, water or a place to sit, smeared with her own feces because prison guards wouldn’t allow her to use a bathroom, and she ultimately collapsed and died (core body temperature 108 degrees . .), not ONE single Arizona legislator decried what happened to Ms. Powell either in the media or during any subsequent legislative hearing or floor session. Not ONE legislator called for hearings to be held on the Department of Corrections practice of ignoring their own written policies and procedures, which were surely ignored on the day Marcia Powell died. Not ONE legislator introduced legislation that would have prohibited the Department from using outdoor cages for Arizona prisoners.

    The problems outlined in the ACLU lawsuit and in Amnesty’s Report, as well as the almost daily medical, protective custody, mental health and other issues that Middle Ground Prison Reform deals with hundreds of times/year, are not ones that should be handled internally by the DOC. The issues must be brought to light in open public hearings at the legislature and swift action must be taken to pass emergency legislation that will bring criminal sanctions against prison staff who engage in behaviors that are a violation of basic human rights (and common sense). The Department must be required to report in detail all instances of suicides, assaults and deaths that occur to Arizona sentenced prisoners (whether housed in public or private facilities) to a special bi-partisan joint legislative committee, and those records must also be available in a timely manner to the public.

    Given the attitude of legislative leaders in both parties, I don’t hold out great hope for such hearings or actions. Instead, the Courts will be forced to intervene in many operational aspects of the Department. It’s a shame our government leaders are so willing to bury their heads in the sand, all because prisoners are not a popular or sympathetic cause. Hopefully, the Judiciary is not so willing to do so . . .

  2. NO Abu Ghraib in Arizona!

    This is shameful and disgusting to hear — about a state that solicits luxury tourism business, new luxury homes and communities to draw $$’s for their broken legal, criminal justice and prison “systems”. The public has been misled about the reality of a state that claims to be religious with “right to life” laws that violate a women’s rights and privacy, a state that does not value human life but puts offenders (many non-violent and mentally ill) in degrading, cruel and inhumane conditions.

    It is time for the U.S. Supreme Court to get involved as they did with the California prisons. Arizona has NO business building any new prisons until it fixes what they have. Arizona has NO business washing their hands of their responsibility of those in their custody by encouraging private prison corporations to take over.

    Once again, the Arizona legislators have failed the people, society and Arizona’s future. This is America, NOT Iran, Syria or China — or are Arizona’s legislators taking their lead from the Taliban.

    We thank the ongoing diligent work of Donna Leone Hamm, Middle Ground Prison Reform (decades of knowledge and facts), former Deputy Warden Carl ToersBijns, along with the Caroline Isaacs, AFSC and many others including former Corrections officers who have had the courage to speak out. Also we thank the many who have created informative websites and held many peaceful protest at the Arizona Department of Corrections to bring attention to this crisis that has been swept under the rug.

    All have been informed and action is demanded to replace executive management who is putting ALL at risk in Arizona’s decrepit prisons, breeding ill health with poor quality food that increases health care costs to the tax payers, unnecessary deaths and litigation.

    ADC plays games with isolation units for petty violations. The murder of Marcia Powell, a non-violent offender, at Perryville Women’s prison, shows how the Governor, ADC Director and Legislators value women in particular. Many are mothers, daughters, grandmothers, sisters, nieces, cousins, and friends of Arizona’s citizens and taxpayers. This arbitrary use of CDU and SMU units for cruel and inhumane punishment must be stopped. We demand outside independent investigation and the top leaders to be fired. Marcia Powell’s murder demanded that at the very least. Those who put people and taxpayers at risk for the political games being played in Arizona, to get Federal $$’s to prop up a failing state is unconscionable.

    Arizona Criminal Justice Reform Coalition
    Concerned Constituents, Citizens and Taxpayers

  3. NO Abu Ghraib in Arizona!

    This is shameful and disgusting to hear about, Arizona, a state that solicits luxury tourism business, new luxury homes and communities to draw $$’s for their broken legal, criminal justice and prison “systems”. The public has been misled about the reality of a state that claims to be religious with “right to life” laws that violate a women’s rights and privacy, a state that does not value human life but puts offenders (many non-violent and mentally ill) in degrading, cruel and inhumane conditions in its county jails and prisons.

    It is time for the U.S. Supreme Court to get involved as they did with the California prisons. Arizona has NO business building any new prisons until it fixes what they have. Arizona has NO business washing their hands of their responsibility of those in their custody by encouraging private prison corporations to take over.

    Once again, the Arizona legislators have failed the people, society and Arizona’s future. This is America, NOT Iran, Syria or China — or are Arizona’s legislators taking their lead from the Taliban?

    We thank the ongoing diligent work of Donna Leone Hamm, Middle Ground Prison Reform (decades of knowledge and facts), former Deputy Warden Carl ToersBijns, along with the Caroline Isaacs, AFSC and many others including former Corrections officers who have had the courage to speak out. Also we thank the many who have created informative websites and held many peaceful protest at the Arizona Department of Corrections to bring attention to this crisis that has been swept under the rug.

    All have been informed and action is demanded to replace executive management who is putting ALL at risk in Arizona’s decrepit prisons, breeding ill health with poor quality food that increases health care costs to the tax payers, unnecessary deaths and litigation.

    ADC plays games with isolation units for petty violations. The murder of Marcia Powell, a non-violent offender, at Perryville Women’s prison, shows how the Governor, ADC Director and Legislators value women in particular. Many are mothers, daughters, grandmothers, sisters, nieces, cousins, and friends —Arizona’s citizens and taxpayers. This arbitrary use of CDU, cages and SMU units for cruel and inhumane punishment must be stopped!

    Those who put people and taxpayers at risk with the political games being played in Arizona, to get Federal $$’s to prop up a failing state is unconscionable. Other conservative states are making serious reforms. If Arizona legislators have a conscience and care about their people then they should follow this successful alternative reforms that have saved lives and millions of taxpayers $$’s.

    We demand an outside independent investigation and expect the top leaders to be fired as they would anywhere else. Marcia Powell’s murder at Perryville demanded that at the very least.

    Arizona Criminal Justice Reform Coalition
    Concerned Constituents, Citizens and Taxpayers

  4. Does anyone have any contact information for Carl Toersbijans.

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