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Thursday, July 4, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge orders Arizona Corrections to fill staffing vacancies in two prisons

After a six-month pilot program in which only two state prisons must reach 100% staffing, the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry will be required to fill the remaining vacancies by a yet-to-be-determined date.

PHOENIX (CN) — A federal judge ordered Arizona’s Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry on Tuesday to completely fill vacant positions at two state prisons, dismissing arguments that the department lacks the funds necessary to comply with the order. 

A year after U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver first ordered the department to increase staffing to provide better physical and mental health care to the more than 25,000 prisoners in Arizona’s nine state-run prison complexes, the prisons still aren’t in compliance.

An April 2023 permanent injunction — which came a year after Silver found at trial 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” — identified specific staffing shortages in the department’s medical contractor NaphCare and required the vacancies to be filled by July 2023. 

To help the department meet the long-overdue requirement and reduce financial strain, independent court monitors appointed by Silver developed a staffing study and pilot program that would require vacancies to be filled at only two prison units serving only 8% of the total prison population.

After six months, the department would then be expected to use the data gathered during the pilot to best fill the vacancies at the remaining facilities. 

The department has 14 days to initiate the six-month plan.

The department argued in a Phoenix federal courthouse in May that it should be given more time because it can’t afford to come into compliance in the next two years. 

Silver rejected the argument. 

“The permanent injunction does not excuse noncompliance based on lack of funds,” she wrote in her Tuesday order. “Thus, defendants’ argument that lack of resources excuses their behavior is contrary to clear law. Invoking lack of resources as an excuse strongly suggests defendants’ agreement to the terms of the permanent injunction was in bad faith.”

While a representative from the state attorney general’s office told Silver he wasn’t sure whether the court has the authority to order the pilot program, Silver wrote in her order that it falls under the scope of the permanent injunction, which the department admitted in the May hearing. 

Though she didn’t include it in her ruling, Silver said in May that she is ready to find the department in contempt of court for repeatedly violating the terms of the year-old injunction.

“At this point, defendants have admitted more staff is necessary and it is difficult to view their behavior as anything other than attempts to delay issuance of a statewide staffing plan,” she wrote. “The court’s patience has run out. Too many individuals are needlessly suffering while defendants have deployed many delay tactics.”

The department will be required per the order to immediately seek the funding required to implement the plan, and provide the judge with updates when funding is secured, after two months, and again after three.

“It has been almost two years since she found that the medical and mental health care in Arizona’s state prisons is so inadequate that it has resulted in preventable deaths and permanent injuries, in violation of the U.S. Constitution,” said Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project.

Just last week, a woman died by suicide at the Perryville prison. Dozens have died in Arizona prisons so far this year

“The inability of the Arizona prison system and its for-profit correctional vendors to hire and retain sufficient numbers of qualified health care staff causes these problems, and this plan developed by independent experts is designed to address these staffing problems,” said Kendrick, who also represents the plaintiff class. 

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.”

Though it was originally settled, Silver vacated the agreement and forced the case to trial because of the department’s failure to abide by the terms of the settlement. 

Trial concluded in 2022, when Silver found the department had failed to provide adequate medical and mental health care to its prisoners. In addition to requiring better staffing, Silver’s injunction required improvements in several areas including better medical record documentation, patient confidentiality protections and regular and timely delivery of medications.

The department objected to multiple parts of the staffing study, questioning the scientific methods used and challenging the validity of certain claims made by the court-appointed experts. But Silver rejected those arguments as well.

“Defendants' continuing attack on the findings of fact which were extensive, well-supported, and obvious suggests defendants do not intend to comply with the court’s orders,” she wrote. “Defendants’ objections are preposterous and are overruled.”

The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.

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Categories / Courts, Regional

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