PHOENIX (CN) – A federal judge Friday fined Arizona $1.4 million for failing to meet standards laid out in a settlement over prison health care, and found the state’s Department of Corrections in civil contempt of court.
In a ruling Friday afternoon, Magistrate Judge David Duncan found the Arizona Department of Corrections had relied on a private contractor that has been unable to meet prison needs as promised as part of a 2014 settlement over care in the state’s prisons. Corizon Health is the state’s prison health care provider.
The settlement came after prisoners filed a class action in 2012, claiming they were subjected to unnecessary suffering and injury in Arizona prisons. They also claimed prison staff was ill-prepared and poorly trained to handle medical emergencies.
The state denied any wrongdoing as part of the 2014 settlement.
“The inescapable conclusion is that defendants are missing the mark after four years of trying to get it right,” Duncan wrote. “Their repeated failed attempts, and too-late efforts, to take their obligation seriously demonstrate a half-hearted commitment that must be braced.”
Over the last year of hearings in the ongoing case, Duncan often expressed frustration at the state’s failures and at it often placing the blame on Corizon.
Despite pointing fingers at Corizon for the state’s inability to meet performance standards as described in the settlement, Arizona extended its prison health care contract with the contractor through June 2019.
“The evidence suggests that the states’ recalcitrance flows from its fear of losing its contracted healthcare,” Duncan wrote. “But even if true, such fear is not a factor that can properly be considered in determining what steps that state must take to meet the health care needs of its inmates.”
The $1.4 million fine levied against the state comes as no surprise.
Duncan had threatened to levy $1,000 for each instance it failed to make improvements. The state acknowledged more than 1,400 instances between December 2017 and February.
In hearings this year, whistleblowers and prisoners testified to deficient care in the prisons, ranging from nurses withholding medications, cancer-ridden patients who are not taken to receive treatment, and prison guards sleeping on the job while tasked with watching inmates on suicide watch.
“The Department continues to provide such inadequate medical care that people suffer needlessly for weeks and months, and some die preventable deaths. This is inhumane, unconstitutional, and short-sighted,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, in a statement. “The harm done to prisoners’ health goes with them when they’re released, making it even harder for them to reintegrate into society and support their families.”
In addition to the contempt finding and the fine, Duncan has asked the parties to submit proposals for how to best use the $1.4 million in fines to benefits the prisons.
“When the government hires a contractor, it must monitor that contractor’s work to ensure that taxpayer money is spent appropriately,” said Corene Kendrick, staff attorney with the Prison Law Office, in a statement. “Throughout the hearings that led to today’s order, the Department of Corrections proved itself unable to show what the contractor, Corizon Health, had done to earn its millions.”
A spokesman for the Arizona Department of Corrections said the agency would appeal the decision.