DOC May Face $2.1 Million in Fines as Inmates Bake Waiting for Medical Care

The Arizona Department of Corrections could be facing over $2.1 million in fines for failing to meet the minimum standards for prisoner health care required by the settlement agreement from the Parsons v. Ryan lawsuit.

In addition, the recent switch to an “open clinic” model at state prisons — intended to make it easier for prisoners to get medical treatment — seems to be making matters worse.

At a court hearing on Friday, inmates testified that they regularly spend hours waiting outside in the sun in order to see a nurse or get their medication.

“If you leave the area, you risk losing your place in line,” explained Mark Blocksom, who’s housed in the state prison in Florence.

“You’re waiting outside in the heat — in the winter it’s different, but in the summer, that can be pretty brutal.”

Blocksom is HIV-positive and also has hepatitis C, high blood pressure, diabetes, and chronic pain issues. He said that he’s waited in the sun for more than three hours to see a nurse. Other inmates have faced waits of up to seven hours.

Sometimes, inmates give up on taking necessary medications because they don’t want to stand in line outside in the heat, he said. “They see that the line is long and they just say, ‘I don’t want to deal with it.’”

Prisoners, he added, “are not being treated as human beings when it comes to medical care.”

When the Department of Corrections agreed to settle the Parsons v. Ryan lawsuit in 2014, it promised to meet certain basic standards for medical care. But the department has repeatedly failed to meet those standards — so much so that in June, Judge David K. Duncan decided that he’d had enough. Future violations would carry a $1,000 fine each, he warned.

However, many of these benchmarks still aren’t being met.

Representatives for the Department of Corrections reported last week that the department had fallen short on certain key measures, such as making sure that inmates’ medication gets transferred with them when they’re moved from one location to another. That only happened 21 percent of the time during June and July, which Judge Duncan called “really shocking.”

The DOC attorney, Timothy Bojanowksi, was unable to provide an explanation for the discrepancy, but said that he was taking “an extremely aggressive approach” to try and get staff to address the issue.

If Judge Duncan decides to sanction the Department of Corrections for each individual violation, the total would add up to well over $2 million. That money wouldn’t go to attorneys from the ACLU, the Prison Law Office, and other groups that represent inmates in the lawsuit, David Fathi of the ACLU said.

Instead, it could potentially be used to compensate inmates who have been wrongly denied medical care, or redirected into a fund that would be used to improve the quality of medical care in Arizona prisons.

Exactly how much the state owes in fines will be determined in a future hearing. Meanwhile, the summer heat is creating additional health hazards for inmates, especially those with existing medical conditions.

Dominique Keys has a collapsed spine and rarely leaves her cell at the state prison in Perryville because of the difficulty of maneuvering her wheelchair. She said that correctional officers had measured temperatures of up to 102 degrees inside her cell.

Her cell is outfitted with a swamp cooler, but it’s not effective when the temperature gets higher than 100 degrees, Keys said. “It feels like being trapped inside a bottle with a cork on it — I can hardly breathe.”

A few weeks ago, the heat was so intense that her cellmate had a seizure and collapsed, she added.

Ronald Oyenik, an inmate at the state prison in Florence, testified that he’d seen inmates pass out while waiting in line to get their medication. In some cases, diabetics have given up on getting their insulin shots because it’s too hot to stand outside, he said.

Similar complaints came up during a recent visit to the Lewis prison complex in Buckeye, attorney Kristin Eidenbach said.

But getting inmates to come to court and testify about the conditions that they experience has been a challenge. Many of the inmates who she spoke to feared being placed into solitary confinement, having their belongings confiscated while they were gone, or experiencing harassment.

“We are severely limited in our ability to present testimony to this court — because people are too afraid,” she explained to the judge on Friday.

Each of the four inmates who testified about the long waits they’d experienced while trying to get medical care said that they worried about facing retribution when they returned to prison. Several mentioned that other inmates who had filed grievances or engaged in litigation had been disciplined as a result.

Nonetheless, their concerns about the quality of the treatment that they’re receiving from Corizon — the privately run company that currently contracts with the Department of Corrections to provide medical services — won out.

“It scares the heck out of me to know that for the next seven years, my life is in their hands and I’m dependent on them to see freedom again,” Blocksom said.
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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.