Arizona Department of Corrections Agrees to Healthcare Reforms to Settle Lawsuit

A proposed settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of 33,000 Arizona prisoners would bring about major healthcare reforms to the state prison system.

The lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Prison Law Office over the conditions at Arizona's prisons was set to go to trial this Fall, but this settlement would prevent that. The settlement includes a wide range of changes, like offering cancer screenings to older inmates, increasing raining for dental assistants, and limiting the amount of time that seriously mentally ill inmates can be kept in solitary confinement, among other things.

"It's one of the largest, if not the largest settlement in a prison-conditions case in recent years," David Fathi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, tells New Times.

See also: -ACLU Lawsuit Over Arizona Prison Health Care, Conditions Likely Headed to Trial

An expert for the plaintiffs in the case, Dr. Robert Cohen -- a doctor with a lengthy history of overseeing health care systems in correctional systems -- called the Arizona Department of Corrections' heath care system "among the worst prison health care systems I have encountered." In reports filed in the lawsuit, Cohen wrote that he found that at least 13 of the 28 prisoners in the cases he reviewed received "grossly deficient" care.

In one case, a prisoner requested HIV testing twice while in ADC custody, which he didn't receive, but he later died from an AIDS-related illness.

In another case, a prisoner died of untreated Hodgkin's lymphoma. Dr. Cohen's review of the medical records points to delay after delay in his care, calling his death "shocking."

However, the settlement includes a statement that the ADC denies all the allegations in the ACLU's original complaint.

"This Stipulation does not constitute and shall not be construed or interpreted as an admission of any wrongdoing or liability by any party," the settlement states.

That original complaint didn't mince words, as you can see from the following excerpt:

Prisoner Plaintiffs and the Plaintiff Class are entirely dependent on Defendants for their basic health care. However, the system under which Defendants Ryan and Pratt provide medical, mental health, and dental care (collectively, "health care") to prisoners is grossly inadequate and subjects all prisoners to a substantial risk of serious harm, including unnecessary pain and suffering, preventable injury, amputation, disfigurement, and death. For years, the health care provided by Defendants in Arizona's prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and failed to meet prisoners' basic health needs. Critically ill prisoners have begged prison officials for treatment, only to be told "be patient," "it's all in your head," or "pray" to be cured. Despite warnings from their own employees, prisoners and their family members, and advocates about the risk of serious injury and death to prisoners, Defendants are deliberately indifferent to the substantial risk of pain and suffering to prisoners, including deaths, which occur due to Defendants' failure to provide minimally adequate health care, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
The ACLU and the Prison Law Office think this settlement will put Arizona on a path to providing proper medical care for inmates.

"The Arizona Department of Corrections has agreed to changes that will save lives," Don Specter, the director of the Prison Law Office, says in a statement. "This settlement will bring more humane treatment for prisoners with serious health care needs, and the potential for their conditions to improve rather than worsen."

Other changes in the proposed settlement include mandated interpreters for health care encounters with non-English-speaking inmates, various changes to the handling of seriously mentally ill inmates, and more. (Read the proposed settlement for all the details.)

A statement from ADC Director Charles Ryan seems to downplay the settlement.

"This is positive news," Ryan says. "On the eve of trial, the plaintiffs in this case have essentially agreed that the department's current policies and practices, along with recent enhancements to programming opportunities, adequately addresses the plaintiffs' concerns relating to constitutional healthcare and conditions of confinement for maximum custody and mentally ill inmates."

The ACLU doesn't see it the same way, as Fathi says this settlement will affect virtually all of the 33,000-plus inmates in the state prison system.

"It's very typical for defendants in these cases to deny any liability and fault and to say that, 'Yes, everything was always fine, but we're agreeing to fix it,'" Fathi says. Obviously these statements don't make a lot of sense. It's a settlement, and every settlement involves compromise but we think this is a very good deal for our clients."

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley