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Arizona Lawmaker Introduces Bill To Repeal Private Prison Health Care Mandate

Arizona state Rep. Diego Rodriguez says privatized health care for inmates in state prisons is a failed experiment whose time has come to an end.

Rodriguez has authored a new bill that he says will undo the privatization that was mandated by the state Legislature 10 years ago.

“We all know that the normal sales pitch for privatization of a public function is that it’s supposed to be more efficient and save money,” he said. But Rodriguez says a  recent report commissioned by a federal judge in the Parsons v. Ryan prison health care settlement, combined with testimony he’s heard in the House Judiciary Committee and ad hoc committee on earned credits, has convinced him the promises of privatization have been broken.

“We’re actually paying for the health care several times now,” Rodriguez said. “You have the attorneys fees and the sanctions that are being paid by the state because of the failure of the third party vendors to meet minimum standards. And then the state is double-paying for administrative costs.”

Rodriguez says the report on the Department of Corrections by Dr. Marc Stern shows “[t]here are mirror positions in the private vendors’ corporate structure in terms of how the medical system is managed. For example, there’s a medical director for the private vendor and there’s a medical director for the Department of Corrections and then they have staff that branches out underneath them.”

Rodriguez says it was his understanding that when privatization was mandated 10 years ago, it was done with the hopes of eliminating redundancies.

“It has been exactly the opposite effect,” he said.

Rodriguez says he’s heard countless stories from his constituents over the years of inadequate care leading to deaths and disfigurements and permanent disabilities.

“The quality of the care is far below where it should be,” Rodriguez said, “especially for patients suffering from mental health issues. I’ve heard from families of people who committed suicide in ADC who may have passed away due to inadequate emergency response,” he said.

Rodriguez says his bill will prevent the state from entering into any more third-party contracts to provide health care at state-owned prison facilities. If adopted in this legislative session, that means health care in the Department of Corrections would be shifted back into the control of the state after the  current contract with Centurion expires.

Rodriguez says he has full confidence that the Department of Corrections can run the health care system on its own again. “In my time at the Legislature, I’ve met with representatives from the Department of Corrections, and they’re all good people that are dedicated to their jobs. I have no doubt, if they’re given the opportunity to go back and fix these issues, they will get the job done.”

Representative Rodriguez, a practicing criminal defense attorney, says he believes including a profit motive on the back end of the criminal justice system jeopardizes the integrity of the system.

“If the state is going to be responsible for incarcerating or punishing its citizens, then the state also should carry the responsibility for administering them through that process,” he said.

Rodriguez also cites the revolving door of contractors that the state has employed as further evidence that privatization isn’t working.

“It’s a failure rate of 66% at this point,” he said. “We’ve had contracts with three vendors now and two of them have been complete failures.”

While acknowledging the bill will need bipartisan support to pass, Rodriguez said he believes the legislature has a mandate from the people to pursue bold criminal justice reform in the next session.

“The hue and cry from our constituents and the people of Arizona is too clear and too loud to ignore,” Rodriguez said. “Improving health care for incarcerated people is just one part of a comprehensive criminal justice reform package that we intend to put forward.”

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.