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Inmates Call For Federal Takeover Of Arizona Prison Health Care System

Lawyers representing an incarcerated class of plaintiffs in the ongoing Parsons v. Ryan prison health care settlement say the time has come for action.

In a filing in federal court on Friday, attorneys from the Prison Law Office and ACLU argue that the state of Arizona has continued to fail to live up to a nearly five-year-old settlement aimed at improving prison health care conditions in state prisons.

PLO attorney Corene Kendrick cited numerous health care benchmarks the agency is not meeting and called the continued behavior of the Department of Corrections “intractable and contumacious.”

She argues ADC’s actions warrant a fine of more than $1 million but notes a similar fine levied in 2018 prompted no change in behavior.

Kendrick writes, arguing that ADC must be monitored to ensure it complies with the ruling, “The time has come for this Court to take additional actions. Plaintiffs ask that in addition to the monetary fine, the Court enter an injunctive order pursuant to Rule 66 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, appointing a receiver to manage ADC’s delivery of health care services to class members.”

In an interview, Kendrick said she recognized the magnitude of such a request.

“Putting a state agency’s operations into receivership is the strongest sanction available to a federal court,” she said. “A judge turns to this only after all efforts to enforce compliance have failed.”

Kendrick said receivership is warranted in this case.

“There’s a whole legal standard and test that the courts apply when deciding whether to appoint a receiver,” Kendrick said, “but there’s two factors that are the most important. The first is whether there is a grave and immediate threat of harm to the plaintiffs and whether the use of less extreme measures by the court to try to remediate the problem have been proven futile.”

Kendrick says both are true in Arizona.

She says a receiver would have the flexibility and the power to do whatever is necessary to bring the provision of health care up to what is considered constitutionally adequate in Arizona. Kendrick says those actions could include making changes to hiring practices for health care staff or requesting the state legislature appropriate more funds.

Kendrick says a receiver would have the power of a federal court.

“So if there is some sort of state law or policy that the receiver believes is causing an impediment to becoming constitutional, he or she can basically override it,” Kendrick said.

In 2012, the Arizona Legislature mandated that Department of Corrections contract with a private health care provider to provide prison health care services. Kendrick said she is not aware of a prior receivership case involving a contracted health care provider.

The Federal Judge overseeing the Parsons settlement, United States District Judge Roslyn Silver, has indicated in filings and in statements made at a hearing that she is open to such a move.

“While Defendants are free to utilize the State’s resources as they wish, at some point their continued insistence that taxpayer money is better spent on assiduously defending their noncompliance with the Stipulation than on efforts towards remedying the fundamental underlying cause of that noncompliance is likely ill-conceived and illadvised," Silver wrote in a Novermber 2018 order.

Silver also raised the possibility of setting aside the terms of the settlement and litigating the case again. "The Court is disinclined to grinding down the well-worn path of noncompliance,” she wrote.

Silver hired independent expert Dr. Marc Stern to evaluate the Arizona prison health care system in 2018. Silver has said she would rely on Stern’s report, expected sometime in October, to decide how to move forward on the Parsons case.

Jimmy Jenkins is a senior field correspondent at KJZZ and a contributor to NPR’s Election 2020 and Criminal Justice station collaborations. His work has been featured on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Takeaway and NPR Newscasts.Originally from Terre Haute, Indiana, Jenkins has a B.S. in criminology from Indiana State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University.Much of his reporting has focused on the criminal justice system. Jenkins has reported on Tasers, body cameras, use of force, jail privatization, prison health care and the criminal contempt trial of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.