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Appellate court allows 33,000 inmates to sue state over health care, confinement

A federal appellate court decided today to allow a lawsuit alleging that Arizona’s prison health care and confinement conditions amount to cruel and unusual punishment to proceed as a class action involving 33,000 prisoners.

The ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court ruling that certified the case as a class action in March 2012, a designation that likely means many years of litigation and legal expenses for the state.

The prisoners are asking for the court to order the state to improve health care to constitutional levels and for long-term court supervision to make sure the state complies. California’s prison health care system has been under court supervision since 2002 as the result of a prisoner class action lawsuit.

The appellate court found that Judge Neil V. Wake of the U.S. District Court in Phoenix, an appointee of President George W. Bush, was correct in granting the certification. The court also upheld Wake’s finding that the Arizona Department of Corrections shows a deliberate indifference to the medical needs of prisoners and that all prisoners are at a substantial risk of serious harm.

Wake included a subclass of prisoners who are confined to their cells 22 hours a day. The plaintiffs, represented by the ACLU, the Phoenix law firm of Perkins Coie, and the Prison Law Office, a California public interest firm, contend the practice amounts to isolation. The Department of Corrections has argued in court and Director Charles Ryan has said publicly that those prisoners are not isolated because they have the ability to communicate with others, even though they are locked in their cells most of the time.

“In this case, all members of the putative class and subclass are allegedly exposed to a substantial risk of serious harm by a specified set of centralized ADC policies and practices of uniform and statewide application,” wrote 9th Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who authored the opinion for a unanimous three-judge panel made up of appointees of Presidents Carter, Reagan and Obama.

“While each of the certified ADC policies and practices may not affect every member of the proposed class and subclass in exactly the same way, they constitute shared grounds for all inmates in the proposed class and subclass,” Reinhardt added.

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