A class action lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections cites 25 instances of state prison inmates suffering from inadequate medical and mental-health care. It also accuses prison officials of deliberate indifference to prisoners' health needs, constituting "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain."
The suit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court for Utah, is the latest attack on state corrections, which has been the subject of audits and investigations into its operations and policies.Behind much of criticism is the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, which joined with the Legal Center for the Handicapped and Salt Lake law firm Fabian & Clendenin in filing the medical-care class action on behalf of prison inmates.
Corrections officials hadn't seen the complaint Monday but didn't express much surprise by its filing. "It is apparent to everyone that the ACLU has launched an attack on the Department of Corrections for reasons completely unrelated to how the department operates," said Scott McAlister, the department's inspector general.
The suit seeks a judgment declaring conditions resulting from inadequate health care constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution; and a permanent injunction ordering defendants to take immediate and continuing steps to remedy the constitutional inadequacies in medical and mental-health care at the prison, or cease incarcerating inmates at the prison.
The lawsuit also asks for the court to call a special master at some point to monitor conditions at the prison and compliance with the order entered by the court, said plaintiffs' attorney W. Cullen Battle .
Named plaintiff in the suit is Sandra Henry, who suffers from AIDS and was charges she was denied medication to prevent complications of the deadly disease. The complaint also cites another inmate with AIDS who was denied dental care by a dentist at the prison.
Other instances include an inmate who is losing sight in one eye because of longstanding infection caused by a gunshot wound inflicted before he entered the prison three years ago; a heart attack victim who received no emergency treatment for up to 30 minutes; and another inmate who resorted to a hobby knife to relieve pain and swelling of an impacted wisdom tooth because he couldn't get a dental appointment.
Regarding mental health and psychiatric care, the complaint cites several cases of mentally ill inmates receiving little or no therapy.
The complaint alleges prison guards brutalize mentally ill or suicidal inmates by twisting arms, using electric shocks or placing them in strip cells without clothes.
Underscoring the examples of inadequate treatment are allegations of a medical staff shortage, unqualified help and lack of facilities.
A press release by the ACLU said the lawsuit comes after two years of discussing the medical care problems with the Department of Corrections.
"Instead of any improvement over those two years we have seen stalling and stonewalling," the statement said. "Instead of making an effort to bring the Utah Prison medical department up to recognized minimal national standards, prison officials have dished up neglect, cruelty and deliberate indifference to the medical and mental health needs of inmates."
Last year an independent audit of the prison's medical facilities resulted in numerous recommended changes, which the ACLU says haven't taken place.
Corrections has taken some steps to improve its medical care to inmates, but executive director Gary DeLand has blamed delays on inadequate funding from the Legislature.
Battle said the Legislature should shoulder some blame for the problem, but the lawsuit doesn't recommend a remedy, just that a remedy take place as soon as possible.
A federal court hearing Tuesday on the Department of Corrections' policy of double bunking prisoners has been delayed at least 60 days, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union said.
Officials from corrections and the ACLU of Utah, which sued the department this year over double bunking in 60-square-foot cells, agreed to continue the hearing as they question expert witnesses from both sides.
Those expert witnesses were at the prison Monday examining the facility. State corrections has been prohibited by the court to double bunk in the small cells located in an aging area of the prison.