(CN) - Arizona must reform its prison health care system and pay more than $5 million in attorneys' fees under a class action settlement announced Tuesday.
The stipulation of settlement filed in Federal Court in Phoenix cancels a trial that was set to start this month in a class action against the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) by inmates at 10 state prisons.
The plaintiffs in Parsons v. Ryan claimed in 2012 that critically inadequate medical, dental and mental health care in the state's prisons had exposed them to "preventable injury, amputation, disfigurement, and death," in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
The inmates and the Arizona Center for Disability Law were represented by the ACLU and the Prison Law Office. They alleged that emergency treatment and other medical care in ADC prisons was often delayed or denied, and that it was difficult to secure medications and medical devices.
They also claimed that dental care in the prisons was substandard and focused largely on extracting diseased teeth.
In addition they complained that some prisoners were kept in isolation units with constant illumination and given inadequate exercise and nutrition.
The settlement requires the Corrections Department to request more funding from the Arizona Legislature to increase staffing of medical and mental health positions, which has been a ongoing problem for the ADC.
However, an ACLU spokesman told Courthouse News on Tuesday the department cannot not use a lack of funding by the legislature as an excuse for noncompliance.
Arizona currently spends nearly $3,800 per inmate in health care costs, according to the department.
Under the settlement, the ADC must increase the amount of time it allows inmates out of their cells, and change the criteria for the use of pepper spray by guards. A "cool down" period is now required in tense, potentially violent situations involving inmates with mental health issues, which "shall include clinical intervention ... by a mental health clinician," the agreement says.
The settlement also requires prison officials to provide "a qualified health care practitioner who is proficient in the prisoner's language, or by a language line interpretation service," for inmates who don't speak English.
The state agreed to pay the plaintiffs' attorneys $4.9 million in fees and costs, plus up to $250,000 per year for a minimum of four years to ensure compliance.
"The Arizona Department of Corrections has agreed to changes that will save lives," said Don Specter, Director of the Prison Law Office, in a statement. "This settlement will bring more humane treatment for prisoners with serious health care needs, and the potential for their conditions to improve rather than worsen."
In September, the ALCU released several previously sealed expert reports on conditions at the prisons at issue in the settlement.
In one, Dr. Pablo Stewart, a prison mental health care specialist, "uncovered numerous preventable suicides by prisoners, lengthy and serious delays in care, insufficient and unlicensed staff and inadequate medication protocols," the ACLU said. "One prisoner hanged himself after ADC neglected to give him his prescribed mood stabilizing drugs for more than three weeks."
Admitting no wrongdoing, ADC Director Charles Ryan called the settlement "positive news" in a statement on Tuesday.
"On the eve of trial, the plaintiffs in this case have essentially agreed that the department's current policies and practices, along with recent enhancements to programming opportunities, adequately addresses the plaintiffs' concerns relating to constitutional healthcare and conditions of confinement for maximum custody and mentally ill inmates," Ryan said.
He stressed that the department has "always followed nationally-accredited standards for housing single-cell inmates that include requirements for natural daylight and contact with others, and out-of-cell time," and said that the state's inmate mortality rates are "within the national average for corrections departments."
"By avoiding a costly trial, the department saves significant resources that can be further directed towards continuing to provide constitutional healthcare and structured programming to support successful community reintegration," Ryan said.
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