Solitary confinement has been a controversial practice in U.S. prisons for decades. The overuse of solitary confinement has been well-documented, and it’s estimated that over 80,000 prisoners are held in these conditions across the country at any given time. Arizona prisons have been at the center of a lawsuit, Jensen v. Shinn (formerly known as Parsons v. Ryan), which seeks to address the issues of excessive solitary confinement and inadequate medical and mental health care in the state’s correctional facilities. In this blog post, we’ll explore the background and findings of this lawsuit, as well as the potential implications for the future of prison oversight and reform.
A History of Solitary Confinement in Arizona Prisons
The Rise of “Supermax” Prisons
Before 1990, “supermax” prisons, where prisoners are held in extreme isolation, were rare in the United States. However, in the last few decades, there has been a significant increase in the use of solitary confinement. Currently, 44 states and the federal government have supermax units.
The Start of the Legal Battle
In March 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Prison Law Office, the Arizona Center for Disability Law, and the law firms Jones Day and Perkins Coie filed a class-action lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) on behalf of thousands of prisoners in the state. The lawsuit alleged that the ADC subjected prisoners to solitary confinement conditions so harsh that they violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
Jensen v. Shinn: The Lawsuit
The Jensen v. Shinn lawsuit, which began as Parsons v. Ryan, documented systematic failures in ADCRR’s provision of dental, mental, and medical care, as well as in its use of solitary confinement. According to the lawsuit, the nearly 30,000 adults and children in Arizona’s prisons were denied the basic health care and minimally adequate conditions to which they are entitled under the law.
In June 2022, U.S. District Judge Roslyn O. Silver found that the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry (ADCRR) systematically violated the constitutional rights of incarcerated individuals in the state’s prisons by failing to provide minimally adequate medical and mental health care and subjecting them to inhumane conditions. This ruling marked a significant development in the decade-long struggle to ensure the rights of prisoners in Arizona.
In her ruling, Judge Silver ordered the ADCRR to make substantial changes to staffing and conditions to bring medical care and mental healthcare in Arizona prisons up to constitutional standards. This sweeping remedial order was seen as a significant step towards addressing the excessive use of solitary confinement, especially for vulnerable populations such as children and individuals with mental illnesses.
Solitary Confinement’s Impact on Vulnerable Populations
The indefinite use of solitary confinement has been criticized for violating the U.S. Constitution and basic human rights norms, particularly for vulnerable populations. Maya Abela, deputy legal director at the Arizona Center for Disability Law, stated that subjecting these individuals to such conditions exacerbates their mental health issues and impedes their ability to reintegrate into society.
The Need for Independent Oversight and Reform
The Jensen v. Shinn lawsuit highlights the urgent need for independent oversight and reform in Arizona’s prisons. As an expert in prison oversight, I believe the following steps are crucial for creating meaningful change:
- Establishing an independent prison oversight body that can monitor conditions and practices within correctional facilities, ensuring compliance with constitutional and human rights standards.
- This oversight body should have the authority to investigate complaints, make recommendations, and take corrective action if necessary.
Reducing the Use of Solitary Confinement
- Implementing policies that restrict the use of solitary confinement, particularly for vulnerable populations such as children and individuals with mental illnesses.
- Investing in alternatives to solitary confinement, such as step-down programs and therapeutic interventions that prioritize rehabilitation and reintegration.
Improving Access to Medical and Mental Health Care
- Increasing funding for medical and mental health care services in prisons, ensuring that incarcerated individuals receive timely and appropriate treatment.
- Enhancing staff training and ensuring adequate staffing levels to address the healthcare needs of the prison population.
Transparency and Accountability
- Ensuring that information about prison conditions, policies, and practices is publicly available and accessible.
- Holding prison officials accountable for failing to meet constitutional and human rights standards.
Public Awareness and Advocacy
- Raising public awareness about the issues surrounding excessive solitary confinement and the need for prison reform.
- Encouraging citizens to engage in advocacy efforts and support organizations working to promote change in the criminal justice system.
The Jensen v. Shinn lawsuit has shed light on the excessive use of solitary confinement in Arizona prisons and the urgent need for independent oversight and reform. By implementing the changes outlined above, we can work towards ensuring that incarcerated individuals receive the basic health care and humane conditions to which they are entitled under the law. Furthermore, we can foster a more just and equitable criminal justice system that prioritizes rehabilitation and reintegration. It’s time to make a stand and demand change in Arizona’s prisons and beyond.