In 1997, Khalil Rushdan was convicted of murder and spent 15 years in prison before his conviction was overturned. He now works for the ACLU of Arizona, helping former prisoners with their re-entry into free society. 

I reached out to Khalil to discuss the reality of healthcare inside prison, the ACLU’s class action lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections for their failure to provide adequate medical care, and his thoughts on how Governor Doug Ducey’s response to the pandemic has affected these already challenging conditions.  

Amanda Knox

Hi, Khalil!

Khalil Rushdan 

Good morning.

Amanda Knox

How are you doing?

Khalil Rushdan 

I’m doing great. You know, considering the circumstances.

Amanda Knox

What does it look like down in Arizona right now?

Khalil Rushdan

We haven’t had the, the numbers, the outbreaks like California and New York. However, I don’t think that our governor and certain lawmakers aren’t taking it as serious. They’re more in the reactive state instead of the preventative, proactive state. Which is sad.

Amanda Knox

Is that something that you’re finding yourself pushing up against in your work right now?

Khalil Rushdan

Yeah, so, I’m the community partnership coordinator with the ACLU of Arizona, on their campaign for smart justice. How I got to the ACLU was, I was fully exonerated from a first degree murder, released from prison on December 11, 2011. Even though I said I won’t put a foot in Arizona again, you know, I had to come back and get on the front line because the culture here is very punitive. There’s still racism. It’s almost like traveling back in time 50 years in some places. You have some people here who believe that the only way to resolve problems are through punishment. You know, justice doesn’t equal punishment. And that’s just a mind state, to punish people here in Arizona. After my release, I have a lot of loved ones that I left incarcerated, some of them who are never coming home. Not bad people. So what I did was I decided to come back to Arizona, get on the front line as a case manager, and assist and mentor people who will come out of the prison system. I’m an advocate to do away with harsh laws that incarcerate people and reduce the prison population by 50% here in Arizona. You get people who say, “Well, why 50%?” and they don’t understand that, when you start with the people who have substance use disorders and mental health disorders, those two populations make up about 50% of the prison population. Arizona is a very, very harsh environment when it comes to the criminal legal system. They actually over-incarcerate. We have about 43,000 people in our penal system. Arizona’s the fourth highest incarcerator of the nation per capita. And we spend $1.1 billion dollars on our incarceral system here. Arizona is known for its infamous sheriff, Joe Arpaio, who bragged about having a tent city, you know, just really thought it was cool to punish people and then brag about it in the media. And it’s just horrible, but it goes to the highlight the culture of Arizona to punish, because Joe Arpaio was allowed to do this for decades and brag about it. This whole tough on crime movement, Arizona still embraces it, even though other states have rolled it back because it was bad practice. It separated families. We see a lot of grandparents actually raising their grandchildren now, because the parents are incarcerated. One of the biggest problems which leads to cruel and unusual punishment is the lack of healthcare. This has been going on for decades. Several of our officials overlook these private medical companies who come into the prison system and they cut corners to make profit.

Amanda Knox

What did you see personally?

Khalil Rushdan

So personally, I had a knee injury, and it took me two years to get to surgery. And that was after, I had to literally threaten the doctor. I told him I wasn’t leaving the medical facility until he took x rays. It’s a really harsh system. And there’s been a lawsuit, Parsons vs. Ryan, that highlights the documented cases of cruel and unusual punishment by these private medical companies, but then also the blatant disregard by a lot of Arizona officials, to hold these medical companies accountable. I think some of them should be criminally charged, because individuals lost their lives. 

Amanda Knox 

So negligence that resulted in death. 

Khalil Rushdan

Absolutely. And we’re talking about medical issues that could have been prevented. One gentleman, he had been fighting to get to medical. He had been feeling sick, throwing up. He was describing pus in his urine. And this had been going on since last July. So, we were able to finally get him to see a doctor, and he’s diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. And then the doctor tells him, “if you would have got here sooner, your survivability probably would have been increased. Now you have a 10-20% chance of survival.” And those are the type of cases that I can’t just lay down on, knowing that this is happening right down the street from my community. Which leads us to the pandemic. 

Amanda Knox

Yeah.

Khalil Rushdan

We need to be proactive, because we don’t want this to spread inside the prisons like a wildfire. So, the breakdown of Arizona, of who’s in prison, you have about 4,800 people who are 55 and up, about 4,500 males, and then about 300 females, who are considered high risk. I don’t want this to end up being a death sentence for these individuals because we know that they’re not going to get the proper screening, the proper precautions are not in place, and so on. So we’re advocating for our governor to release people, and most people say, “Oh, well, don’t release murderers and killers.” And we’re saying, “Well, start with all these people who have nonviolent offenses.” We can start with those elders who are at higher risk, who have nonviolent offenses, but for the governor to come back and say, “Oh, we’re not releasing anybody,” I just think that’s a blatant disregard and lack of humanity by the leadership here in this state.

Amanda Knox 

How have you approached the government to request that these high risk, nonviolent individuals should be released? When did that conversation start to take place?

Khalil Rushdan 

When we started to see the infection rate increasing, and looking at other states, New York started letting people go. California started letting about 3500 people go as a precaution.” So we have really started to advocate around that. The attorneys in the prison healthcare lawsuit filed a motion to the court asking for the federal court to release people here, considering that the federal court is very aware of the poor healthcare in our system. That motion was denied. The second ask was for our governor to issue an executive order to release people. We sent letters. Governor never responded directly to us. He gets on the news and he makes a comment where he says, “We’re going to protect Arizona citizens and inmates.” So he separated the inmates as being citizens. So that was a red flag to me. We sent a letter to [David] Shinn, who is our director of our prison system, to ask him to take precautions and give people the proper cleaning supplies, the proper PPE, you know, personal protective equipment. We haven’t heard anything back from him. He issued a statement on their website, the Department of Corrections website, saying they have tested 34 people in prison for COVID-19. 29 have tested negative and the other results are still pending. However, some of the correctional officers are very concerned, because they’re not allowed to wear protective masks, protective equipment or anything. Some of the successes we’ve had is at the city level, where the Phoenix Police Department have lowered their arrests. 

Amanda Knox 

So, they are taking measures to avoid adding more people to the prison population, but they aren’t taking measures, as far as you’ve seen, to reduce the current prison population?

Khalil Rushdan

Correct. 

Amanda Knox

What is the resistance to release nonviolent offenders? What’s the reasoning?

Khalil Rushdan 

Because they just over-incarcerate here. They overcharge. They over-incarcerate. The punitive culture not to release people is just this ideology that it’s us versus them. You made a mistake, you can never fix it. And I just don’t get it, because our governor says he believes in second chances. He’s been very poor at eliminating policies, laws, and practices that do not allow formerly incarcerated individuals to be stable once they’ve fulfilled their obligation to the state. We have some very harsh housing laws that will not allow you to rent. We’ve seen people denied housing. So, it’s just a culture that it’s us versus them. I just think there’s a lack of humanity, because it doesn’t affect these individuals who are down there making these bad laws.

Amanda Knox 

Are you in touch with any prisoners currently about the conditions that they are seeing inside prisons?

Khalil Rushdan  

Absolutely. I’ve gotten phone calls with family members. I’ve been on calls where those directly impacted, who are confined right now. The mess of all of this, Amanda, I can’t make it up. I get a call last week where, you know, one of the persons incarcerated, the officers sic their dog on him and the dog ended up biting this person’s leg, and then he was denied medical attention. And Arizona officials, the governor, sweeps a lot of this up under the rug. The attorneys who are representing those incarcerated on the class action lawsuit, the health care lawsuit, that’s pretty much all we can do at this point. But the biggest thing that we look to do is vote these individuals out of office. For somebody to stand on either side of the aisle and just overlook these concerns, they shouldn’t be a lawmaker. They shouldn’t be a representative. Because I think they forgot who they represent. 

Amanda Knox

Have you been able to follow up on this whistleblower complaint from the prison staff about not even prison staff being allowed to have personal protective equipment?

Khalil Rushdan  

I’ve actually spoken to a couple of correctional officers, and it’s been reported to the news that they’ve actually been told not to wear the personal protective equipment because it’s going to scare the inmate population. There’s no transparency. There’s never been any transparency between the community and corrections. And for an officer to even call this complaint a whistleblower, that tells you how bad the transparency is, where they try to intimidate officers not to go out and talk publicly about what’s going on in our prison system. That’s the scariest piece, and that’s all the community has really been asking for from day one is, be transparent with us. The funniest part about it is, this is recommended by public health experts. All we’re doing is advocating for them to follow the guidelines that the public health experts recommended. And they’re just ignoring it.

Amanda Knox 

Are you seeing the government acknowledging the crisis outside of the prison system and ignoring the prison system? Or are you seeing them blanket dismissing the coronavirus crisis?

Khalil Rushdan

We just got our stay at home orders Tuesday, but I’m still seeing people out cutting hair, I still see people at the parks. Our governor has done a poor job at issuing the order. I don’t know him personally, but politically, I think he’s garbage. He waits ‘til it becomes a worst case scenario. He’s only responded to national pressure. And this is why, one thing I do like is, communities are coming together. The village is coming together to help each other. We’re not going to wait for elected officials to decide to move. The village is making the moves. And I love that. I love that response in people.

Amanda Knox  

Let’s say, in a week, he decides that there needs to be a thinning out of the population. What needs to be done in order for those prisoners who might get released to have a successful transition?

Khalil Rushdan 

So first thing is, anybody that is scheduled to be released between now, six months to a year, release them. What is six more months going to do? When they’re released, we want to make sure that we have a transitional bridge to get this person connected to the resources, to housing. What I would be doing is, working with these individuals to make sure they understand the severity of the pandemic, make sure they have shelter, make sure they have food and water, make sure they have clothing and make sure that they’re communicating with family to understand if there’s members in the household who are high risk. You know, have a plan in place for that. So our governor should work strongly with the existing social services. The other thing that he can do is, up until a week and a half ago, some halfway houses were kicking people out because they didn’t have the rent money. They were laid off due to coronavirus. Our governor can make sure that there’s some enforcement in place for shelter all the way down to these halfway houses for the individuals who are released. But the biggest thing that he can do is understand that he’s supposed to represent all Arizonians, and he’s supposed to take all Arizona’s concerns into consideration. I get tired of lopsided solutions that only benefit the people in his circle. That has to change. 

Amanda Knox 

Do you have any more thoughts on the quarantine and the pandemic inside prisons?

Khalil Rushdan

I tell people, “Take this serious. Get to know your neighbor.” Virtually, through social distancing and through social media, webinars, whatever. It shouldn’t take a pandemic, to 1) make people stronger, and then 2) have an appreciation of life, and then 3) community coming together. But we do have to come together to have some accountability for our elected officials and our lawmakers, because they stopped representing the community interest a long time ago. And, the last thing I would say is, “Really find some time to decompress.” Because this gets overwhelming, this is traumatic, you know, especially to be confined. The confinement alone is traumatic, but then the confinement on top of the increased concerns about actually dying while you’re in confinement, that escalates this trauma involved. I’m doing a lot of things right now that I should have done a long time ago. Projects. I’m trying to do some gardening and things like that out in the yard just to take my mind off of this, and try to find some internal peace.

Amanda Knox

And I suppose that’s the tragedy for the prisoners is, there is no such outlet for them. They’re trapped.

Khalil Rushdan 

Absolutely. And, you know, there’s this notion that, “Oh, they’re criminals, they don’t deserve this, they don’t deserve that.” And, I tell people, “These are still human beings.”