Arizona DOC Investigates Concerns Over Inmate Health Care

PHOENIX — All state and federal inmates are provided health care under the law, but the conditions of the medical care and lack of attention has caused some serious allegations by inmates against their respected facilities.

Arizona’s Department of Corrections has agreed to investigate multiple complaints by inmates about the lack of medical care they are receiving. In California, four prisoners in the Fresno Jail filed a class action lawsuit for ultimately violating the prisoners’ Constitutional rights by failing to provide basic health care.

The San Quentin, Calif.-based Prison Law Office is helping to represent both cases, along with additional counsel in the Fresno case including the Disability Rights California and San Francisco, Calif.-based Cooley LLP, a nationwide full-service law firm.

Inmate Care in Arizona

According to the allegations the inmates claim the Arizona Department of Corrections has chronically and systemically denied medical and mental-health care to inmates, which violates state and federal laws as well as the U.S. Constitution.

“State prison officials are deliberately indifferent to the serious health-care needs of prisoners and to the prisoners’ unnecessary and significant pain, suffering and even deaths,” said Donald Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office.

The wide range of allegations of inadequate or insufficient health care include but are not limited to, a diabetic prisoner who ultimately went blind in one eye after waiting months for insulin, an epileptic who wasn’t given his medication and suffered repeat seizures for weeks as well as an inmate with a cancerous growth on his lip who waited seven months for treatment — after the long wait most of his lip and mouth were removed leaving him permanently disfigured.

Despite the allegations, the Arizona Department of Corrections general counsel says they have not found any evidence of systemic problems and said inmates’ loss of sight and disfiguring facial surgery were not related to any delays of treatment.

Not only are inmates complaining about health care inadequacies but the prison staff is also concerned about the welfare of the community. Michael Breslow, deputy medical director for psychiatry in 2009 was concerned with the conditions and noted them in an email to Corrections Director, Charles Ryan obtained through an Information Act request.

“We’re out of compliance with our own policies,” said Breslow to Ryan. “The lack of treatment represents an escalating danger to the community, the staff and the inmates.”

The Arizona State Prison Complex-Tucson and the Eyman unit house more than 5,100 prisoners each and are supposed to have five doctors on staff. In April, Eyman and Tucson both had only two doctors on staff, according to department reports.

In 2010 the ADOC spent $111.3 million or $3,258 per inmate on health care — down 27 percent from two years earlier where the department spent $140.5 million or $4,482 per inmate. The corrections department also spent $5.3 million less on full-time health care staff salaries in the last year than they did two years ago.

The cost to care for a prisoner is expensive but by denying basic care for inmates simply prolongs pain and suffering as well as increases the amount of care and costs to treat the patient once they are able to receive care.

“Ninety percent of them will get out of prison, so treating HIV or hepatitis C or whatever they have prevents a public health risk, or they’ll get out and get on AHCCS (Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System) and we’re paying for it anyway,” said Caroline Isaacs, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Tucson office which monitors state prisons.

Inmates Sue in California

Four prisoners in the Fresno County Jail filed a class action lawsuit claiming that Fresno Sheriff Margaret Mims has failed to provide basic health care to inmates who are allegedly subjected to dangerous facilities.

The plaintiffs claim they had been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment at the jail including being regularly denied treatment for life-threatening illnesses, severe mental health symptoms, and serious dental conditions.

The Prison Law Office is also helping in the Fresno County Jail case and discussed the problems with the health care system at the jail — which mimic similar medical care issues in the Arizona case.

“Most detainees in the jail are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of any crimes. They are dependent on the jail for all their medical needs,” said Kelly Knapp, an attorney for the Prison Law Office. “To leave them in pain, at risk of life-threatening injury and permanent disability is simply inhumane.”

Part of the problem with the Fresno Jail health care system is that it doesn’t have the adequate funding to care and treat an influx of inmates with physical and mental illnesses.

“Counties such as Fresno have a simple choice: increase spending on jail services, or develop cost-effective community programs to divert prisoners with mental illness or drug dependence out of the jail and into programs of close supervision where they will pose no public safety risk,” said Melissa Bird, Senior Counsel at Disability Rights California.

According to the Consensus Project on Mental Health and Criminal Justice, community supervision and treatment will actually improve public safety by reducing the risk of recidivism and freeing costly jail beds for violent offenders.

“Since Fresno has radically cut back outpatient mental health services, the jail has become a costly dumping ground for people with mental illness who need care but cannot find it elsewhere,” said Rach Scherer, another attorney with Disability Rights of California. “It would cost the county far less to provide mental health treatment in the community through alternative diversion programs or supervised release of those who pose a low risk to public safety.”