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Mental Health Crisis in Arizona Prisons: The Alarming Suicide Rates and Deplorable Conditions of Confinement

In recent years, the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry (ADCRR) has come under intense scrutiny for its alarming suicide rates and the deplorable conditions of confinement. This article will examine the current state of mental health care in Arizona prisons, the rising number of suicides, and the urgent need for change and independent oversight.

Suicides in Arizona Prisons: A Troubling Trend

Between 2019 and September 2021, 23 people died by suicide in Arizona prisons. These tragic deaths are part of a larger, nationwide issue, as suicide rates in correctional facilities are significantly higher than the national average. The increasing number of suicides in prisons indicates a systemic problem that must be addressed urgently. It is crucial to investigate the factors contributing to this distressing trend, such as inadequate mental health care, environmental stressors, and lack of support for vulnerable populations within correctional facilities.

Continued Suicides in Arizona Prisons: A Cry for Help

Despite ongoing legal battles and court orders, the suicide crisis in Arizona prisons continues to worsen. A series of death notifications and news reports highlight the alarming frequency of suicides within the state’s correctional facilities. The Arizona Department of Corrections has been warned about the mental health issues faced by incarcerated individuals, particularly young inmates, but the department’s actions thus far have been insufficient in addressing these urgent concerns. The failure to provide adequate mental health care and to improve the overall living conditions in Arizona prisons is not only a violation of inmates’ constitutional rights but also a humanitarian crisis that demands immediate attention and action.

Vulnerable Populations at Risk

Suicide is a serious threat to all individuals involved in corrections, with certain populations, such as juveniles and LGBTQ+ inmates, being at an even higher risk. Young inmates often face unique challenges, including difficulty adjusting to the prison environment, bullying, and lack of age-appropriate resources. Additionally, LGBTQ+ inmates may experience increased isolation, harassment, and discrimination, which can exacerbate mental health issues and heighten their risk of suicide. Furthermore, correctional officers themselves face a much greater occupational suicide rate due to the high-stress nature of their work, frequent exposure to violence, and the emotional toll of managing inmates with mental health issues. Comprehensive intervention and support strategies are necessary to protect the well-being of these vulnerable groups.

Mental Health Care in Arizona Prisons: A Neglected Issue

Approximately 37% of people in prison have a history of mental health problems.

However, the mental health care provided to incarcerated individuals in Arizona prisons is sorely lacking. The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry (ADCRR) has been accused of violating the constitutional rights of the people in its custody for more than a decade by denying them adequate medical care and causing untold suffering and deaths. Mental health services within Arizona prisons often fail to meet the basic needs of inmates, with insufficient staffing, inadequate treatment plans, and limited access to necessary medications. To address this issue, it is imperative that the ADCRR and other relevant stakeholders invest in improved mental health care, including proper screening, effective treatment options, and ongoing support for those in need. Implementing these changes can not only help to reduce the rate of suicides in Arizona prisons but also contribute to the overall well-being and rehabilitation of the incarcerated population.

The Parsons v. Ryan Class Action Lawsuit

In 2014 the American Civil Liberties Union, The Prison Law Office, the law firm of Perkins Coie and the Arizona Center for Disability Law filed to address the severe lack of medical and mental health care, as well as the overuse of solitary confinement in Arizona prisons. Filed on behalf of all persons incarcerated in the state’s ten prisons, the class-action suit aimed to protect the rights and health of prisoners, who were suffering due to inadequate healthcare provisions and inhumane treatment. Over the years, the case has highlighted the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry’s persistent failure to meet its obligations under the legal settlement, resulting in multiple fines and ongoing legal battles. The federal courts have continued their efforts to bring Arizona prisons’ healthcare standards up to constitutional levels and put an end to the overuse of solitary confinement.

The State Enters Into and Then Violates a Settlement Agreement

The parties reached a settlement in 2014 which was entered by the Court. The settlement agreement set form a number of metrics for the State to meet in the provision of Medical and Mental Health care and the use of solitary confinement. However, the state of Arizona repeatedly violated the terms of the agreement, failing to provide adequate medical and mental health care as well as continuing the overuse of solitary confinement. The violations led to the court imposing contempt fines twice, with fines amounting to $1.4 million and $1.1 million, respectively. Due to the state’s ongoing noncompliance, Judge Roslyn Silver ultimately ordered the parties to trial, a significant step in the continued pursuit of justice for incarcerated individuals and the improvement of healthcare and living conditions within Arizona prisons.

Trial Ordered Over Arizona Department of Corrections Inmate Health Care

The 15-Day Trial

Judge Silver presided over a 15-day trial held in November and December 2021, examining whether the ADCRR had complied with its obligations under a six-year-old class-action legal settlement. Her ruling confirmed that the department had not fulfilled its responsibilities, marking the latest effort by federal courts to bring Arizona prisons’ healthcare standards up to constitutional levels.

A Decade-Long Struggle

The Jensen v. Shinn lawsuit represents a decade-long struggle to ensure that the nearly 30,000 adults and children in Arizona’s prisons receive basic health care and minimally adequate conditions to which they are entitled under the Constitution and the law.

Judge Issues 64-Page Remedial Order for ADC

New Requirements for Medical Care and Mental Health

In response to the trial, Judge Silver issued a 64-page order to the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry. This order outlines new requirements aimed at improving medical care and mental health services in Arizona prisons. With these measures in place, the Jensen v. Shinn case moves closer to a resolution that will hopefully lead to significant improvements in the living conditions and healthcare provision for Arizona’s incarcerated population.

The Need for Change: Independent Oversight and Improved Conditions

It is clear that the current state of affairs in Arizona prisons is untenable. Change is needed to address the high suicide rates and deplorable conditions of confinement.

Implementing Independent Oversight

Independent oversight can help ensure that the rights of incarcerated individuals are protected, and that appropriate mental health care is provided. This oversight can also hold the ADCRR accountable for its actions and help prevent future tragedies.

Improving Mental Health Care

In addition to independent oversight, there is a pressing need for improved mental health care within Arizona prisons. This includes:

  • Better access to mental health professionals
  • Comprehensive mental health assessments for all incoming inmates
  • Access to appropriate medication and therapy
  • Adequate support and resources for vulnerable populations, such as juveniles and LGBTQ+ inmates

Addressing Deplorable Conditions of Confinement

Improving the conditions of confinement is crucial to supporting the mental well-being of incarcerated individuals. This can be achieved by:

  • Ensuring that facilities meet minimum standards for cleanliness and safety
  • Providing adequate access to recreation, education, and vocational programs
  • Offering opportunities for family visitation and communication
  • Ensuring that staff receive proper training in mental health care and crisis intervention

Advocating for Change

As taxpayers and citizens of Arizona, it is our responsibility to advocate for change and support initiatives that aim to create independent oversight and improve mental health care within Arizona prisons. This can be done by:

  • Raising awareness about the issue through social media, blog posts, and community events
  • Supporting organizations, such as the ATAC, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), The Prison Law Office, and the Centers for Disability Law, FAMM, and others that work to protect the rights of incarcerated individuals
  • Contacting local and state representatives to express concern and demand action
  • Volunteering with organizations that provide mental health care and support to incarcerated individuals and their families

The alarming suicide rates and deplorable conditions of confinement within Arizona prisons cannot be ignored. As experts in prison oversight, we must work together to advocate for change and ensure that incarcerated individuals receive the mental health care and support they desperately need. By implementing independent oversight, improving mental health care, and addressing the conditions of confinement, we can help prevent future tragedies and create a more just and compassionate correctional system.

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