Las Vegas Sun

March 23, 2019

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Inmates’ lawsuit could mean trouble for Corrections Department

Medical case could expose flaws in system

Inmates at Ely State Prison have won the right to pursue a class action lawsuit against the Nevada Corrections Department, and prison officials should be very worried.

Not just because the suit — which alleges medical care for Ely inmates is so bad it’s deadly — casts a bad light on corrections. And not because the inmates could win big settlements from the state — they aren’t even asking for money.

The real reason prison officials should be concerned about the class action lawsuit is this: The Ely case is about more than the Ely prison. This case is actually about a systemic failing of the entire Corrections Department. If the Ely suit succeeds, the first domino falls.

The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada in March of last year, argues that Ely inmates are grossly deprived of basic medical care. The key here, the reason the case has implications for the entire state prison system, is that the inmates’ medical problems are partly because necessary prescription medications not being distributed regularly, if at all.

Now take a step back: Nevada’s prison pharmacy is a centralized operation, run out of a hub in Las Vegas. If there are problems with prescriptions in Ely, the logic goes, there are problems everywhere. It’s not the prison, it’s the system.

Now take another step back: A 2006 state audit of prison medical services revealed “significant weaknesses” in pharmacy operations, including a central pharmacy that sometimes took more than four weeks to dispense medication. This audit lays a nice foundation for someone to argue issues at Ely are a small part of a larger, long-standing problem.

U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks, who certified the class action lawsuit on March 31, allowed the ACLU to represent not just the roughly 1,000 prisoners currently incarcerated at Ely, but any future inmates sent to the maximum security facility. Five inmates are named in the lawsuit, but the door is open for an unforeseeable number.

The state attorney general’s office represents the prison system and fought against the class action status. It had good reason to do so. If the ACLU was forced to represent each inmate separately, the cases could be bogged down with painstaking examination of individual medical treatment histories, burying the central but general issue: prison health care in Nevada.

Grouping inmates in one case, packing a complaint with numerous, horrifying stories of negligent care, forces the court to focus on the overarching issue. This is another reason state prison officials should be concerned about the Ely case: By granting class action status, the federal judge acknowledges this isn’t about a few guys griping, but, as he wrote in his ruling, about an “inadequate medical system.”

Moreover, a class action case allows the ACLU to circumvent laws designed to thwart inmate lawsuits. The federal Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, enacted to limit the number of frivolous lawsuits filed by jailhouse attorneys, made it harder for inmates to sue prisons. As a result, Nevada inmates have to complete a complicated formal grievance process before they can file a lawsuit against the state. The five men named in the Ely suit went through this process and were legally allowed to lawyer up. Now that the judge has certified the class action status, however, the ACLU is allowed to work backward, finding and representing inmates who didn’t jump through the necessary hoops — maybe because they were too sick to stand it.

And if new cases come to light, examples of inmates worse off than those named in the Ely suit, that’s something for all of us to worry about.

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