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Wednesday, June 5, 2024 | Back issues
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Arizona prisons noncompliant with court orders in prisoner condition class action, judge says

The Arizona Department of Corrections said Thursday that it can’t afford to comply with the staffing requirements generated by court-appointed monitors in a decade-old federal class action.

PHOENIX (CN) — A federal judge said Thursday she’s prepared to issue a ruling finding the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry in violation of her permanent injunction in a decade-old federal class action over the state’s prison conditions. 

U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver revealed her disappointment in the department’s lack of compliance with the order — which required the department to increase staffing to provide better physical and mental health care to the more than 40,000 prisoners in Arizona’s 14 prisons — in a status conference Thursday afternoon. 

“As far as the provisions of the injunction, I think 75% of them have been violated already,” the Bill Clinton appointee said from her bench in a federal courthouse in Phoenix. 

The April 2023 permanent injunction, based on a draft order from that January, came nearly a year after Silver found that the prison system “failed to provide, and continues to refuse to provide, a constitutionally adequate medical care and mental health care system for all prisoners.”

The injunction identified staffing shortages in the department’s medical contractor, NaphCare, and required the vacant positions to be filled by July 7, 2023. 

Nearly a year after the deadline, the department is closer to its goal, but still sees serious shortages. 

To spur the department into compliance, court-appointed monitors including a psychologist and a health care policy consultant issued a staffing study and plan to implement in the Arizona prisons. Silver considered approving the staffing plan Thursday, but wanted to hear objections from the parties. 

Because department heads worried that implementing the entire staffing plan would prove too financially burdensome, the monitors developed a pilot program that would first be conducted at two of the 14 prisons for six months. After that, the parties could analyze what issues need the most attention and finalize the staffing plan for the entire prison system.

Dr. Marc Stern, an internist specializing in correctional medicine and one of the court-appointed monitors, said in court that staffing at the two pilot locations can’t be increased by siphoning staff away from other locations, but instead must come from an overall increase in NaphCare employees. 

While the department lamented high costs in its written response to the staffing plan in April, it wasn’t until Thursday that attorneys made its financial situation clear. 

“We don’t have the money to do this,” defense attorney Daniel Struck told Silver. “It would require a new contract with NaphCare. It would require asking for approval from the [Joint Legislative Budget Council]. We can’t do that in this amount of time.”

Struck said the department has been operating at a deficit in its attempts to follow other provisions of the permanent injunction. Though it’s been withholding money from NaphCare as sanctions for not meeting staffing and salary requirements, it’s still struggling to make ends meet, Struck said. 

He asked that he be given the chance to brief the court on potential costs and contract amendments with NaphCare before Silver issues a ruling. 

Corene Kendrick, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union representing the plaintiff class, showed no sympathy for the department’s apparent dire straits. 

“This is just dragging things out,” she told Silver. “Our clients are continuing to suffer under a system that you found unconstitutional almost two years ago.”

Kendrick asked why the defendants didn’t bring their financial issues up earlier if they’ve known about the permanent injunction since last January. 

“They knew this was coming,” she said. 

Silver said she’s ready to approve the staffing study and plan, but may request more briefing from the parties on when, if at all, she should order the pilot program to be implemented.

“I haven’t decided what to do,” she said.  

Struck said the department won’t be financially ready to begin the program until at least late 2025. 

Earlier in the four-hour hearing, Stern dispelled some of the department’s concerns with the staffing study itself. 

For example, the department contested the increase of licensed physicians to reduce daily workloads to just 15 patients per physician per day. The department argued that some of its physicians can see up to 30 patients per day. 

“It’s just not realistic,” Stern told the court, explaining that it would require physicians to spend just 10-15 minutes per day with each patient. 

The case began in 2012 when a class of prisoners sued the state, claiming inadequate health care in the prisons led to “unnecessary pain and suffering, preventable injury, amputation, disfigurement, and death.”

In addition to increasing full-time staff, Silver’s permanent injunction required improvements in several areas including better medical record documentation, patient confidentiality protections and regular and timely delivery of medications. The Department of Corrections is also required to implement programs for suicide prevention and analysis, monitoring health care trends among patients, language accessibility and rapid medical and mental health screenings upon intake.

It’s unclear which of the provisions Silver believes the department is in violation of, but she said she’ll allow the defendants to brief the issue before she issues an official order.

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Categories / Civil Rights, Courts, Regional

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