Arizona Department of Corrections fined $1.1 million for neglecting health care benchmarks

Arizona corrections officials have been hit with more fines for failure to comply with orders to improve health care for the tens of thousands of men and women in its custody. (Photo by Matthew Hendley/Creative Commons)

PHOENIX – For the second time since 2019, the Arizona Department of Corrections has been found in contempt for its failure to follow health care guidelines designed to protect prisoners.

In a ruling issued Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver fined the Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation & Reentry $1.1 million for neglecting health care guidelines the department agreed to follow in 2015. The fine is to be paid this month.

This is the second time the department has been found in violation of these regulations. The original lawsuit, filed in 2012 on behalf of over 33,000 inmates by the American Civil Liberties Union and Perkins Coie LLC, cited concerns about the lack of care within Arizona’s 48 correctional facilities, whether it be comprehensive health care, dental or mental health care. Through the settlement, 112 benchmarks were created and agreed upon. To avoid fines, the department would have to remain 70% compliant with the settlement.

In 2019, however, the department was held in contempt for failing to meet enough of those benchmarks. Lawyers for the plaintiffs say that equates to inadequate health care for those in the system who have needs that go beyond basic care.

“Within correctional facilities, we see individuals with cancer and heart disease as well as drive-by mental health encounters that can last anywhere from two to three minutes,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “These incarcerated individuals need to go and see outside specialists, and are more often than not not taken to those specialists.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections confirmed officials had received the order from the court and would be reviewing it with their attorneys.

The Department of Corrections is required to report to the ACLU each month with documentation of the care inmates receive through its health care providers. Through these documents and the department’s medical records, the ACLU has been able to repeatedly determine noncompliance in the system, Fathi said.

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The new $1.1 million fine only applies to February. To avoid being fined for the whole year – which could be up to $17 million – the state must be able to show cause for this month as well as why they should not be fined for the whole year.

“A large part as to why this is happening is a lack of awareness in the Legislature,” said Daniel Barr, ACLU co-counsel and an attorney with Perkins Coie. “We’ve met with several legislative bodies and many of them had never even heard of the case.”

In Barr’s opinion, this lack of awareness is due in part to the blatant disregard by lawmakers as well as the news media.

“There are 36,000 prisoners in the state of Arizona right now, and these people have the constitutional right to health care just like everyone else,” Barr said. “The Eighth Amendment right to this care is extremely basic, and these people aren’t even getting that much.”

Fathi said the February fine will be used to fund a systemwide study to identify the root causes of the persistent negligence. Some key factors, he said, are the understaffing of correctional facilities, as well as the political unpopularity of criminal offenders.

“These people have been abused, neglected and victimized,” Fathi said. “I haven’t seen a lot of attention on these individuals from elected officials. It all comes down to a lack of resources and attention.”

Fathi and Barr find the lack of action in the nine years since the original suit appalling.

“It is historic to hold a state agency in contempt not once, but twice in three years,” Fathi said. “It‘s a rebuke of the state’s failure to acknowledge the need for change.”

News Reporter, Los Angeles

Sabrina Kenoun expects to graduate in May 2021 with bachelor’s degrees in journalism and English literature and a minor in film and media production. Kenoun, who also reports for the State Press, is working for Cronkite News this spring.