Arizona’s decades-long violation of incarcerated persons’ rights comes to an end


Hannah Saunders


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a nonprofit organization committed to protecting the constitutional rights of every individual, announced on Jan. 23rd that the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry (ADCRR) denied medical care to incarcerated persons that resulted in untold sufferings and deaths. 

The denied medical care will come to a halt following the proceedings of a trial, which resulted in US District Judge Roslyn O. Silver issuing a preliminary order this past January, telling Arizona officials what they must do to bring the standards up to par.

ADCRR denied the occurrence of violations, including ignoring the mental health needs of incarcerated persons, spraying incarcerated persons with pepper spray, and shooting incarcerated persons with pepper ball guns instead of providing treatment. According to the ACLU, some were placed in solitary confinement for years.


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Silver’s preliminary order requirements for ADCRR include hiring and training sufficient medical, mental health, and correctional staff to provide care to and monitoring of individuals in custody. The order also requires ADCRR to provide clinically appropriate medical and mental healthcare, which includes actions such as assigning each incarcerated person a primary provider, improving the electronic medical record system, and ensuring that people are referred to the specialists they need for care.

Additional order requirements include providing timely medical and mental health screenings by healthcare providers within one business-day of an individual entering the ADCRR system; developing, in conjunction with the court, a custody staffing plan for housing units where individuals are placed in isolation, and provide the court with a quarterly correctional staffing report; and implementing a system to facilitate the return to lower levels of custody for individuals who have been housed in isolation for longer than two months.

“We hope that with this powerful order, Arizona officials will finally comply with the Constitution, abide by the rule of law, and respect the rights and dignity of the thousands of people in their custody,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project in a statement. “We are grateful to our clients—what they have had to endure is unconscionable. This landmark order is the result of their bravery and testimony. We expect state officials to comply with this order and finally put an end to appalling conditions in Arizona prisons.”

The lawsuit against ADCRR, known as Jensen v. Shinn was originally filed in 2012, which resulted in a court-approved settlement in 2014 to protect the rights and health of incarcerated persons. Since then, numerous enforcement orders have been issued, including a state fine of over $2.5 million for the for-profit healthcare contractors’ failure to provide basic healthcare to incarcerated persons.

In July of 2021, Silver withdrew the settlement agreement and set the case for trial, which took place in November and December of that year. Evidence presented by the plaintiffs during the 15-day trial included expert testimony about unconstitutional medical and mental healthcare, the harmful psychological effects of isolation; the conditions in isolation units; and inadequate healthcare staffing. Following the review of trial testimony, Silver found that ADCRR systematically violated the 8th Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment by providing inadequate medical and mental healthcare, and depriving individuals in solitary confinement of basic human needs including adequate nutrition, exercise, and social interaction.

“The trial laid bare the significant harm that living in isolation causes to people who are incarcerated, especially people with serious mental illness living in such conditions,” said Maya Abela, an attorney with the Arizona Center for Disability Law. “With this order, ADCRR is required to take steps to address those harms and ensure constitutional living conditions and appropriate mental health services are provided to people in isolation units.”

Individuals with first-hand incarceration experience also testified at the trial, including Kendall Johnson, who shared her experiences in an ADCRR facility. 

At age 33, Johnson, a former basketball player, began experiencing numbness in her feet and legs while at the Perryville women’s prison. Although she requested medical care, ADCRR failed to diagnose her multiple sclerosis for years and failed to provide her with treatment that would have slowed the progression of the disease. As a result, Johnson was bedridden and unable to care for her most basic needs. She reported difficulty reading due to vision loss and needed assistance eating—all by the time she turned 37.

Rahim Muhammad also testified at the trial, saying he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and held in solitary confinement for almost seven years, despite ADCRR’s classification system finding that he didn’t pose a security risk that warranted such isolation. For most of the year leading up to his trial date, Muhammad was placed on suicide watch, where he was pepper sprayed almost 50 times for banging his head on the wall of his cell while he was visibly delusional. After one year, ADCRR transferred Muhammad to an inpatient mental health unit, where he received minimal treatment and was allowed to be outside of his unit more frequently. 

The legal director of ACLU Arizona, Jared Keenan, said in a statement that the organization welcomes the order, but that it doesn’t erase the decades of suffering that many incarcerated persons were forced to endure in Arizona prisons.

“This monumental case will bring some relief for the thousands behind prison walls, and we’ll remain focused on keeping ADCRR accountable to the order and to their constitutional duties,” Keenan said.

ADCRR’s Rehabilitation and Reentry report for Jan. 2023 shows that there were 120 hospital admissions, with 6,195 incarcerated individuals requiring ongoing mental health services. The total number of incarcerated persons in ADCRR facilities as of last month is 39,188, with the largest portion of individuals identifying as Hispanic (39.6%). 

As part of Silver’s order, ADCRR is required to use an electronic system to track the actions of correctional officers for the purpose of ensuring that they’re conducting welfare checks, and not improperly denying people recreational or out-of-unit activities. The court order also establishes a presumptive two-month time limit for individuals to stay in solitary confinement and ensures that every incarcerated person is let out of units for at least 14 hours per week. The order also requires ADCRR to provide persons in solitary confinement with three meals per day, two of which are ‘hot meals,’ and requires ADCRR to repair and maintain facilities in habitable conditions. 

“Arizona’s prison walls for too long concealed immense suffering and needless death,” said Rita Lomio, staff attorney at the Prison Law Office. “This order would not have been possible without the brave people who testified from their hospital beds and prison cells.”

Since the start of this year, there have been 13 reported deaths in ADCRR facilities. 

On Feb. 18th, Joe Cornell, 57, passed away after being in custody since 1991. On Feb. 14th, Heron Gomez, 39, passed away after being in custody since 2018. On Feb. 4th, David Quezada, 44, passed away, with cause of death still pending, according to the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office. On Feb. 1st, John Cuffle, 80, passed away from hypertensive atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease after being in custody since 1975, and had diabetes mellitus, kidney disease, and dementia. 

On Jan. 29th, Robert Stone, 82, passed away after being in custody since 2015. On Jan. 22nd, Ramon Ramirez, 50, passed away from complications of renal cell hypernephroma and cardiovascular disease; the Pinal County Medical Examiner’s Office told State of Reform that Ramirez passed away from natural causes. 

On Jan. 20th, Valerie West, 64, passed away with the primary cause of death from community-acquired pneumonia and contributory causes including hypertensive and atherosclerotic vascular disease, and diabetes mellitus. On Jan. 15th, Charles Lindsey, 59, passed away after being in custody since 2015. On Jan. 13th, Richard Salazar, 30, passed away and his cause of death is pending as the Pinal County Medical Examiner’s Office is waiting for test results, they told State of Reform.

On Jan. 10th, George Morando, 46, passed away from asphyxia due to suicide. On Jan. 5th, Oscar Cisneros, 47, passed away after being in custody since 2017. That same day, Stephen Ackerman, 81, passed away. On Jan. 4th, Johnny Armenta, 41, passed away after being in custody since 2022.