Prison Health Care Horror Stories Emerge From ACLU's Lawsuit Over Arizona Prison Conditions

Dozens of allegations of widespread problems in the Arizona Department of Corrections' health care system were made public yesterday.

The claims come from the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona's big class-action lawsuit against the state prison system, which claims that the ADC's health care services are wholly inadequate (to say the least), and is slated to go to trial this fall.

These new reports are from ACLU witnesses in the case, including several doctors and a longtime prison administrator, who got an up-close look at specific health-care issues in the prison system.

"The state is claiming that these are isolated incidents and these don't reflect the system as a whole, but these experts reports show that's simply untrue," ACLU of Arizona executive director Alessandra Soler tells New Times.

As one of the experts, Dr. Robert Cohen, described it in one of his reports, "[T]he ADC health care delivery system is fundamentally broken and is among the worst prison health care systems I have encountered."

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

Cohen is a doctor with an extensive history of medicine in correctional settings, including time serving as a court-appointed federal monitor in prison health care systems in other states.

He came to his conclusion of Arizona having one of "worst prison health care systems [he's] encountered" during an evaluation of the health care system that including tours of two of the prison complexes and reviews of medical records and autopsies of some prisoners who died in ADC custody.

Cohen found that at least 13 of the 28 prisoners in the cases he reviewed received "grossly deficient" care. The newly released reports explain many of these problems in great detail.

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."

Although the ADC eventually turned over its health care to a private company, Wexford, then another private company, Corizon, and amazingly, the ACLU's experts contend that the systemic problems extend through all phases.

The lawsuit against ADC isn't just related to deaths, either. Far from it, in fact -- the class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of about 33,000 prisoners, and much of this allegedly poor medical care is ongoing.

"[T]here were multiple cases in which the lapses were so shocking and dangerous that I felt ethically obligated as a medical professional to bring them to the immediate attention of the ADC and Corizon staff," Cohen wrote in one report.

And there's more. The lawsuit isn't just limited to deaths and potential deaths, but also over other prison conditions, including the ADC's use of isolation, prisoner nutrition, and more.

Until now, the allegations that were made public were of a more general sense. These new reports, released as a result of a court order in the case, identify some very specific things that the ACLU's experts found to support the allegations, and they found plenty wrong.

In all, 23 such reports have been made public -- ACLU officials say more will be coming -- and are all hosted online by the Prison Law Center, which is also involved in the lawsuit.

"It's a level of suffering that is unprecedented," Soler says. "The degree of suffering and the degree of harm to these patients is really the result of a system that is extremely, extremely broken."

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley