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Court asked to run health care system in Arizona prisons

Arizona corrections officials don’t have the capacity to improve staffing problems that have put prisoners with medical and mental health issues at risk of harm, according to lawyers for incarcerated people who are asking a judge to take over health care operations in state prisons.

In briefs filed late last week, attorneys made what amounted to closing arguments in a trial over the quality of health care for about 27,000 people incarcerated in Arizona’s state-run prisons. Testimony in the trial, which will be decided by U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver, concluded in mid-November.

The trial was called after a 2014 settlement resolving the case was thrown out last summer by Silver, who concluded the state showed little interest in making many of the improvements it promised under the deal and that inadequate care for prisoners had led to suffering and preventable deaths.

Silver also said that $2.5 million in contempt of court fines against the state didn't motivate authorities to comply with the settlement.

Lawyers for the prisoners said Arizona’s prison health care operations are understaffed and poorly supervised, routinely deny access to some necessary medications, fail to provide adequate pain management for end-stage cancer patients and others, and don’t meet the minimum standards for mental health care.

They are asking the judge to take over health care operations, appoint an official to run medical and mental health services there, ensure prisons have enough health care workers and reduce the use of isolation cells.

“In short, there is an abundance of undisputed evidence and court rulings showing that the state of Arizona through its director of corrections and his subordinates have at a minimum demonstrated a reckless disregard for their constitutional obligations,” the prisoners’ lawyers wrote. “This has spawned tragic consequences that never should have been tolerated much less permitted to continue for almost a decade.”

The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Re-entry has denied allegations that it was providing inadequate care, delayed or issued outright denials of care and failed to give necessary medications.

In court papers, the agency’s lawyers said Corrections Director David Shinn, who was appointed to the post by Gov. Doug Ducey in October 2019, has focused on overcoming the challenges in the health care litigation. They also say a company contracted to provide health care in Arizona’s prisons has invested money into recruiting and retaining employees and that hiring nurses remains a challenge in and outside of prisons.

Shinn had testified at trial that he believes it’s a myth that a certain number of health care workers must go to certain facilities.

In dealing with staffing challenges, corrections officials and the state’s prison health care contractor have “emphasized telehealth and telepsychiatry and, instead of forcing people to work at certain locations, they have focused on hiring people who want to work and live in the location.”

A court-appointed expert had previously concluded that understaffing, inadequate funding and privatization of health care services are significant barriers in improving health care in Arizona’s prisons.

Jill Ryan joined KJZZ in 2020 as a morning reporter, and she is currently a field correspondent and Morning Edition producer.