Bill Would Force AZ Inmates to Pay Medical Costs Before Collecting Civil Damages

Arizona's prison system has become notorious for medical neglect and bad food, among other issues.
Arizona's prison system has become notorious for medical neglect and bad food, among other issues. ADC via Youtube
A new bill in the Arizona State Legislature would force current or former inmates to pay off medical costs before they can receive any monetary awards in civil lawsuits against the state.

House Bill 2140, pre-filed Thursday by Republican State Representative Anthony Kern, explicitly includes medical costs for injuries incurred when an inmate works for the Arizona Department of Corrections or under one of its labor programs through Arizona Correctional Industries.

Inmates already are required to put any monetary judgments they receive after suing the state into paying back all restitution and incarceration costs. If passed, the proposed legislation would tack medical costs onto this list of debts.

According to the state's Health Services Technical Manual, inmates must pay for visits with health care staff and "may be charged" $4, but no more than $5. ADC doesn't provide medical care directly, instead contracting with the private company Centurion for care.

The state is required to provide care to indigent inmates who cannot afford the $4 copay, but regulations bar the state from waiving those medical fees entirely, except under special circumstances. One of them is for "inmates who have been injured while performing job duties."

click to enlarge Representative Anthony Kern - GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR
Representative Anthony Kern
Gage Skidmore/Flickr
A spokesperson for ADC did not immediately respond to a question about the total amount currently or previously incarcerated people owe the state for health care. A quarterly departmental report that is supposed to contain that information could not immediately be found online.

Last year, Phoenix New Times reported on Mary Stinson, who has since been released from prison, who sued the ADC and Hickman's Egg Farms for negligence after losing part of a finger while working at Hickman's. She made $4.25 an hour and sought $1 million in damages. Other inmates have also reported being seriously injured while working at the egg factory like Stinson, and have filed suit.

If the bill were to pass, people like Stinson would have to use whatever settlement she receives, if any, to repay Arizona for the costs that the state incurred from treating these types of injuries.

Because state law does not classify inmates as employees, inmates injured on the job are not reported to the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

Through Arizona Correctional Industries, the state Department of Corrections contracts out inmate labor to companies like Hickman's. "Inmate work forces provide dependable call center teams, seasonal laborers, and highly skilled, flexible work forces for public and private businesses alike," the program's website says.

Kern did not respond to an email and a voice message seeking comment.

Corene Kendrick, a staff attorney with the California-based Prison Law Office, who is also co-counsel in the Arizona prison healthcare case Parsons v. Shinn (formerly Parsons v. Ryan), called the bill “an impermissible punishment and retaliation against incarcerated people for exercising their First Amendment right to access the courts.”

She added, “It’s the counties’ and states’ responsibility to provide health care to the people incarcerated in their jails and prisons, and the government officials cannot transfer that fiscal responsibility to them.”

Joel Robbins, a lawyer who represents Stinson, saw the bill as “another corporate handout” for companies “that abuse prisoners by using them as expendable parts.”

He said it appeared to be trying shift medical costs from negligible employers to the very people who were hurt, and said the proposed legislation could deter inmates or former inmates from filing suits lawsuits that could help hold companies that use prison labor accountable.

This story has been updated from the original version with statements from Corene Kendrick and Joel Robbins.
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.