Arizona Prisons Medical Care Scrutinized in Federal Court

PHOENIX (CN) — An inmate at an Arizona prison told a federal court Wednesday that he went more than a year without treatment for lymphoma.

William Upton, an inmate at the Florence prison complex, testified as part of a hearing to determine whether Arizona is in violation of a 2015 class action settlement it entered into after inmates filed suit over deficient medical care.

U.S. Magistrate David Duncan has said he will fine the state $1,000 for each violation. The state has disclosed around 1,000 violations for the month of December and nearly 400 for January, which may run Arizona about $1.4 million.

Upton, who is incarcerated on attempted child molestation charges, said he did not see an oncologist from February 2016 until April or May 2017.

“By 2017 I became extremely weak and I was losing weight,” Upton told the court. “I had loss of appetite, I had to force myself to eat.”

Upton received chemotherapy at that time, but then went a few months without treatment again.

Around Thanksgiving last year, Upton began to experience nose bleeds and was taken to an emergency room where a doctor placed gauze inside his nose and gave him medicine.

Soon after, his throat became infected and he had trouble breathing. He sought care in the prison, but it took two weeks for an antibiotic to be ordered, and another week to receive the prescription.

“One month after the first nose bleed they sent me to an ENT,” Upton told the court. “The first thing she did was look up my nose and found that gauze that had been up there for a month.”

With antibiotics and the gauze removed, Upton’s throat began to clear up.

Corene Kendrick, an attorney for the class of inmates, asked Upton to tell the court how the delays in treatment made him feel.

“I think those treatments were too few and far between, especially when I went without treatment over a year,” Upton replied. “I became progressively weaker … so weak I could barely walk to the chow hall.”

Testimony from David Robertson, a physician monitor for the Department of Corrections, indicated that while there have been issues within the agency regarding medical documentation, progress is being made.

Robertson was asked about more than a dozen mortality reviews he completed. A mortality review is done after the death of an inmate, and lists possible actions or inactions by staff or the prisoner that may have contributed to the death.

In one review, an inmate with cancer dropped from 182 pounds to 145 pounds before his death.

In another, an inmate died from a ruptured spleen.

Robertson noted on the reports failures committed by staff, like a failure to recognize symptoms, follow up on test results and properly record documents.

“There has been efforts made to improve documentation,” Roberston said. “I’m happy with it, progress is being made.”

Despite these failures, Robertson testified that Corizon officials provide copies of the mortality reviews to providers and nursing staff in the prisons.

“When we do these things, it is in the spirit of collegiality for improving care,” Robertson said.

Robertson told the court that he had been following Upton’s medical care.

“He’s been on my radar,” Robertson said.

Upton’s referral for oncology has been found medically unnecessary by Corizon, the healthcare provider in Arizona’s prison system, despite his cancer diagnosis and a provider note that he was becoming more frail every day.

“I remember making some strongly worded phone calls,” Robertson said about the delay in Upton’s care.

Testimony from Jan Watson, a doctor who worked at an Arizona prison last year, wrapped up earlier in the day.

Watson first testified Tuesday about deficiencies in the state’s prison health care system.

The hearing was prompted after Watson contacted a reporter for a local National Public Radio affiliate, KJZZ, and provided him with emails detailing shortages in specialists for inmates.

Dan Struck, an attorney for the defense, questioned Watson’s intent in contacting KJZZ.

“Ultimately your hope was that you coming forward with this article would catch the attention from the judge in this case,” Struck said.

“Ultimately my goal was to change the quality of care,” Watson replied.

The hearing is slated to resume March 26.


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