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Judge: Arizona Department of Corrections must explain inadequate prison health care

The Arizona Department of Corrections will have to go back to court to explain why it hasn’t made significant progress toward reforming prison health care, a federal judge ordered Friday.

A case stalled by a settlement in 2014 will now go to trial, U.S. District Judge Roslyn O. Silver said in a 37-page order rescinding the agreement.

Over six years, the state has failed to meet many of the benchmarks set in the agreement and offered unreliable excuses and “baseless” legal arguments, as recently as January, to avoid responsibility, Silver wrote.

“The present situation must end,” she wrote.

In the 2012 lawsuit, the plaintiffs, 15 prisoners who sued on behalf of all other prisoners, alleged inadequate nutrition, medical, dental, and mental health care, and access to exercise, as well as “extreme social isolation.”

Prisoners have begged for treatment only to be told “be patient,” “it’s all in your head,” or “pray,” the original complaint says.

Despite warnings from corrections employees, prisoners and their family members, the state was “deliberately” indifferent to the suffering of prisoners, in violation of the Eighth Amendment, the lawsuit says. One plaintiff, Shawn Jensen, had prostate cancer was denied treatment for a leaking bladder catheter and was eventually told his bladder was irreparably harmed, according to the lawsuit.

The 2014 settlement set a benchmark of 85% compliance with the measures that could have ended court monitoring, but the state did not meet that mark.

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Failures included providing prescription medication, sick visits to medical personnel, doctor visits, chronic care visits, and infirmary care. In 2017, the state was warned that without improvement, remedial action would be taken, Silver wrote.

The state also changed reporting methods to artificially inflate compliance numbers associated with adequate mental health treatment. That failure may have led to catastrophic results, Roslyn wrote.

“Sadly, this may have been confirmed by recent suicides,” her order says.

Twice during the monitoring phase of the agreement, the state has been held in contempt, resulting in more than $2.5 million in fines. At one point the state tried to use Covid-19 as an excuse for not complying, but it was not a valid excuse, Roslyn wrote.

“In the contemporaneous performance measure charts submitted to the court, defendants frequently said noncompliance was based on ‘poor documentation,’ which obviously has nothing to do with COVID-19,” she wrote.

The lack of compliance constitutes a lack of good faith and fair dealing, the judge wrote. Roslyn’s order rescinds the settlement agreement and orders the parties to confer and prepare for trial.

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