Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘mona lynch

ACLU, Prison Law Office File Suit against the Arizona Prison System

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Here’s some interesting news on the prison litigation front: The ACLU of Arizona has joined forces with the Berkeley, Calif.-based Prison Law Office — they’re the ones who’ve been litigating California prison conditions cases for years, and brought us last year’s Plata decision at SCOTUS. The two groups have filed a federal lawsuit charging that the Arizona prison system’s use of solitary confinement amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment:

In one particularly tragic case, a prisoner at the state prison complex in Tucson died last year of untreated lung cancer that spread to his liver, lymph nodes and other major organs before prison officials even bothered to send him to a hospital. The prisoner, Ferdinand Dix, filed repeated health needs requests and presented numerous symptoms associated with lung cancer. His liver was infested with tumors and swelled to four times its normal size, pressing on other internal organs and impeding his ability to eat. Prison medical staff responded by telling him to drink energy shakes. He died in February 2011, days after finally being sent to a hospital but only after his abdomen was distended to the size of that of a full-term pregnant woman. A photograph of Dix shortly before his death appears in the lawsuit.

Jackie Thomas, one of the lawsuit’s named plaintiffs who is housed in solitary confinement at the state prison complex in Eyman, has suffered significant deterioration in his physical and mental health as a result of being held in isolation, where he has become suicidal and repeatedly harmed himself in other ways. Prison staff have failed to treat his mental illness, improperly starting and stopping psychotropic medications and repeatedly using ineffective medications that carry severe side effects. Last November, Thomas overdosed on medication but did not receive any medical care.

Given the unique circumstances under which Plata rose to the Supreme Court — California’s prison overcrowding had been endemic for years, and had reached the level of a state of emergency, as declared by Governor Schwarzenegger — I wasn’t sure that the Plata ruling would have much practical effect beyond the Golden State. So it’ll be interesting to watch as the Prison Law Office expands its work to Arizona. As Plata itself demonstrates, the staff there have a track record of translating concerns about prison conditions into legal claims that courts take seriously.

You can read the full complaint here [PDF]. Also involved in the suit is the Arizona Center for Disability Law. And there’s more info at the always excellent Solitary Watch blog.

And for broader historical context on the Arizona prison system, I highly recommend Mona Lynch’s Sunbelt Justice, which I blogged about here.

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New Book: Sunbelt Justice

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I am reading a new history of the Arizona prison system entitled Sunbelt Justice: Arizona and the Transformation of American Punishment, by Mona Lynch (Stanford UP, 2009). Like many states, Arizona has experienced exponential growth in its prison population in recent decades. However, Arizona’s penal history is also unique in a few ways. For one thing, Arizona was relatively late both to statehood (1912) and to having a centralized statewide department of corrections (1968), so its penal system offered policymakers something of a clean slate (in contrast to the Eastern and Midwestern states, and even to some extent California, where the penitentiary model and rehabilitative ideal had deeper institutional and philosophical roots). Also, Arizona did not start out as a high-incarceration state. Rather, within 20 years or so, Arizona leapfrogged from a state with “a modest and stable level of imprisonment” into “a national trend-setting leader in delivering harsh punishment” (p. 3). Thus, it offers an interesting case study in how and why the prison population exploded in the late twentieth century.

Lynch’s study merits reading in full for anyone with an interest in penal policy or the tragedy of mass incarceration, and I hope to blog further about her findings (particularly her account of federal court oversight of the Arizona prisons). If you don’t have time to read the whole book, at least check out this detailed review and summary over at the California Corrections Crisis blog. For now, I’d like to highlight two of Lynch’s findings that stood out for me, and that could alter the way that we think about the history of the prison-industrial complex — and how to challenge it.

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Written by sara

January 21, 2010 at 10:26 pm

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