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KOLD Investigates Prisons on Trial: Arizona on trial over prison healthcare

Published: Nov. 5, 2021 at 1:55 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Day four in the landmark trial on Arizona inmate healthcare wrapped up on Thursday, Nov. 4.

This trial comes after a federal judge threw out a 2015 settlement, after finding the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry failed to meet its promises on providing adequate healthcare.

For years, inmates have argued the ADCRR has failed to meet basic healthcare needs.

Inmates say conditions are so bad, they violate their constitutional rights by subjecting them to cruel and unusual punishment.

Plaintiff’s witness, Dr. Pablo Stewart, is a psychiatrist and an expert in correctional psychiatrist.

Stewart took the stand and described images taken from a video he reviewed of an inmate who is mentally ill.

Stewart said the inmate suffered from a psychotic episode, banging his head against a wall, believing he needed to kill himself in order to save his daughter from being raped.

Stewart said instead of calling in a mental health expert, the inmate was shot “at least four times with a semi-automatic pepperball launcher.” Stewart said a corrections officer told the inmate, “Each time you do this, you’re going to get shot with a pepperball now. And if that don’t work, I’m gonna tase you.”

Court documents state that custody staff either pepper-sprayed him or shot him with pepperballs every day from December 10, 2020 through December 25, 2020.

The state argued Stewart only visited with a small percentage of inmates, many of whom were designated as severely mentally ill, therefore failing to really gather an accurate picture of what’s happening behind bars.

Stewart also brought up staffing issues.

A chart documenting staffing numbers at the Tucson facility presented by Stewart shows the prison does not have a psychiatrist and has not had one since May.

The facility is also understaffed when it comes to psychologists and psych associates.

However, the state argued some vacancies at facilities are being filled by part-time workers or overtime work.

Stewart also raised concerns with solitary confinement cells.

He showed a picture of one that he said was covered in blood.

He said the inmates living in adjacent cells told him an inmate had cut himself the night before, and despite inmates banging on their cell doors and yelling, “Man Down!” it took at least five minutes for officers to respond and that no effort had been made to clean up the blood.

The state argued Stewart had no way to confirm the substance on the cell walls and ground was blood.

Dr. Craig Haney, a professor of psychology and University of California Santa Cruz Presidential Chair, also took the stand as an expert witness for the plaintiffs.

Haney testified that Arizona has no limits on how long someone can be held in solitary confinement, meaning inmates can spend years, even decades in isolation.

Haney said studies have shown those who spend an extended period of time in isolation are more likely to commit suicide.

According to ADCRR data gathered by Stewart, 33 out of 54 suicides since January 2014 happened in some type of isolation.

Stewart and Haney also expressed concern when it comes to inmates’ healthcare privacy.

They said some clinicians would see inmates at their cells, instead of in a private room, where their conversations could be overheard by staff and other inmates.

Stewart said he also learned healthcare providers who were not bilingual would at times, use another inmate as a translator, instead of calling in a professional translator. They said this is a violation of inmates’ privacy rights.

The state argued some inmates refuse to be seen privately, so healthcare providers must provide checks at their cells.

Haney said he spoke with some inmates who had refused a private visit and they said it is because they are required to sit in a cage the size of a telephone booth while constrained.

The inmates described this as, “dehumanizing and hardly conducive to building trust and rapport.”

The state argued there are some inmates with a history of violence who need to be restrained in that way to prevent them from hurting themselves and others when interacting with a healthcare provider.

The state has cross-examined these witnesses and called into question their qualifications.

The state has also criticized their reports because the experts only interviewed a small population of inmates, which fails to give them a clear picture of what is really happening behind bars.

Copyright 2021 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.