State reaches agreement over ‘systemic failures’ in prison health care

State reaches agreement over ‘systemic failures’ in prison health care

Facing a lawsuit they appeared to be losing, state prison officials have agreed to improve health care for the more than 34,000 inmates in their custody.

The stipulation filed today in federal court in Phoenix requires the Department of Corrections to live up to 80 specific performance standards for how it handles medical issues. These range from staffing requirements and emergency response times to ensuring that inmates get their medications in a timely fashion.

Potentially more significant for those affected, the stipulation also requires the state to revamp its rules on solitary confinement of inmates with serious mental illness.

Where current regulations keep those prisoners in their cells all but six hours a week, they will now have at least 19 hours a week elsewhere. And that time also must include mental health treatment and other programs.

And the department has also agreed to use chemical agents like pepper spray on inmates classified as seriously mentally ill  “only in case of imminent threat.”

That is defined as situations that jeopardize safety or security, such as an attempt to escape or active physical resistance. But it specifically precludes pepper spray for things like “passive resistance to placement in restraints or refusal to follow orders.”

Don Specter, an attorney with the Prison Law Office, said this deal, which must be approved by U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake, is more than just his organization and the American Civil Liberties Union accepting on faith that things will get better.

“We will be able to tour the prisons to check ourselves to see whether they’re providing adequate care,” he said.  “And we will also get a lot of documentation.”

The deal comes four months after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals gave the go-ahead for the case, alleging inadequate health care, to be handled as a class-action lawsuit.

Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for the appellate court, said the attorneys for the inmates provided detailed allegations of everything from “outright denials of health care” to improper isolation policies. And they also had information on how spending on certain services dropped by more than a third over a two-year period even as inmate population did not.

But Reinhardt, in refusing to require each inmate to prove his or her rights were violated, said the claims alleged “systemic failures” in the prison’s health care system “that expose all inmates to a substantial risk of serious harm.” And if that is the case, Reinhardt said that would require a wholesale revamp of the agency’s policies — and not simply correcting the problems of the 13 inmates who filed the original 2012 lawsuit.