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Incarcerated People Near Death Await Arizona Gov. Ducey's Signature For Release

When Dana Huff was sent to the state prison in Florence in May of 2019 for an aggravated DUI, he had a small bump on the side of his face. Over the next few months, the bump became a tumor that grew to the size of a baseball. Huff, a 63-year-old veteran, has now been diagnosed with aggressive, untreatable cancer, and has been given less than four months to live.

Huff is one of five people incarcerated in the Arizona Department of Corrections who have been approved for clemency based on an “imminent danger of death exception.” Huff’s commutation was unanimously approved by the Arizona Board of Clemency on Feb. 12, 2020. He, like the four other inmates, is waiting on Gov. Ducey’s signature so he can be sent home to die.

→  On The Inside: The Chaos Of Arizona Prison Health Care

Falling Through The Cracks

Huff entered prison at the end of May 2019. On July 1, 2019,  ADC switched to a new, private, medical provider, Centurion.

Jackie Steffen, Huff’s wife, believes her husband fell through the cracks during the changeover.

“They forgot about him for like two months,” Steffen said. “They didn’t do anything. He was just pushed to the back burner.”

Steffen said she begged ADC and Centurion to do something as the tumor continued to grow.

“I left messages after messages after messages,” she said. Steffen would call every day. Her husband’s symptoms began to include severe pain and paralysis. But she says only recently, after the cancer became more aggressive, was her husband offered the appropriate treatment he has needed all along.

Health officials recently told Steffen her husband has been diagnosed with aggressive, Stage 4 cancer, and that he has less than four months to live.

Imminent Danger Of Death Exception

Kathryn Blades, executive director of the Arizona Board of Clemency, confirmed there are five imminent danger of death commutation cases awaiting action from Ducey.

She said Dana Huff was approved unanimously by the Board on Feb. 12, 2020.

“The Board has five members,” Blades said. “Applicants apply through the Governor's Office/Boards and Commissions. Board members are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate pursuant to ARS 31-401.”

Katie Puzauskas is a lawyer with the  Arizona Justice Project and the director of the  Post Conviction Clinic at Arizona State University. She says if a prisoner is determined to be within four months of death, they may apply for clemency under what’s called the “imminent danger of death exception.”

Puzauskas says the exception exists so that people “can have dignified death.” She recently contributed research to a scholarly paper examining compassionate release, medical clemency and parole processes across the country.

“What we found, in looking at the policies, is a recognition that in someone’s final days, we should treat someone with dignity, and we should have compassion and mercy,” she said. “And we should let those people be with their families and be taken care of by their loved ones.”

Puzauskas says it is extremely rare, in general, for a clemency recommendation to be granted, but imminent danger of death cases are granted more frequently. She says inmates granted such clemency are usually going to spend their final days at home with family or in hospice.

Puzauskas believes the policy should be expanded in Arizona, which she says has one of the most narrowly defined sets of criteria for release in the country.

She says incarcerated people who are incapacitated or have Alzheimer's disease should be considered, even if they are more than four months away from death.

“I do think there are people, who don’t currently meet the board’s criteria, who can be, and should be, safely released,” she said.

Puzauskas says the current COVID-19 pandemic is making the case for broadening the standards that would allow for inmates to be released.

“There are vulnerable individuals in our prison system who could be hit pretty hard with all of this,” she said. “I think if we safely release them to their families, we could avoid some suffering.”

A Pattern Of Neglect

Prison Law Office attorney Corene Kendrick said she was shocked when she saw Dana Huff’s baseball sized tumor protruding from the side of his face when she met him on a recent tour of the Florence prison. “Mr. Huff is an example that we’ve seen before of people who have something pretty minor and pretty treatable that is just allowed to exacerbate until it’s fatal,” she said.

“When he went into custody last year, this was a small bump on his face,” Kendrick said. “He went repeatedly to see the nurses about it and they would tell him things like ‘it’s an in-grown hair’ or ‘it’s a pimple’ and it just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. By the time he finally saw a surgeon, it was too large to remove and he was given a death sentence of dying within a few months.”

Kendrick said Huff’s tumor is one of the most egregious cases of neglect she has ever seen in a client. “His mouth is now pushed to the side and his eye is shut,” she said.

Kendrick is one of a number of attorneys who are monitoring an ongoing class-action settlement over  health care conditions in state prisons in Arizona.

“The defendants, the Arizona Department of Corrections, have been filing for months with the federal court, these explanations for their failure to comply with specialty care requirements,” Kendrick said. “They are saying the reason they haven’t been able to comply is because in the transition from Corizon to Centurion, Corizon said that they wanted to stop all outside consults.”

But Kendrick says once Centurion took over, specialty care did not properly resume in the prisons. “So ADC’s own reports to the court trying to explain and justify why there’s been abysmal performance in specialty care matches up with what happened to Mr. Huff,” she said.

Kendrick says recent reports from ADC filed to the court about urgent specialty care consults at the Florence prison show a decline in performance.

After reviewing Huff’s medical records, Kendrick says they show a pattern of neglect that she’s seen in many of her other clients in Arizona prisons.

“Class members are encountering months and months if not years of delay in treatment,” Kendrick said. “And it’s only when they get to an infirmary setting where they’re diagnosed with very advanced stages of cancer that they start getting the treatment that they should have received months earlier.”

Before leaving him at the prison, Kendrick said Huff asked her to pray with him. "His prayer was that Governor Ducey would sign his commutation packet," she said.

Waiting On A Signature

Jackie Steffen said ADC was supportive in her efforts to seek clemency for her husband, but she has been unsuccessful in contacting anyone at the governor’s office who might be able to help.

Ducey’s office did not respond to multiple requests to comment on approving releases from the prisons or taking any action on clemency board recommendations

“I wish someone could just listen to me, and help me, because I’m stuck,” Steffen said. “I don’t know what else to do and I just cry myself to sleep.”

Steffen says if she could speak to Governor Ducey, she would ask him to sign off on the commutation so her husband can be with his family in his final days. She says what her husband has gone through is inhumane.

“This should never happen to anyone," Steffen said. "I’m devastated. I just want my husband home.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Katie Puzauskas' name.

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Jimmy Jenkins was a producer and senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2014 to 2021.