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Whistleblower Gives Harrowing Look on Health Care in Arizona Prisons

A counselor who worked at an Arizona prison testified Thursday about a prison health care system riddled with inadequate staffing, poor care, and correctional officers that slept on the job.

PHOENIX (CN) – A counselor who worked at an Arizona prison testified Thursday about a prison health care system riddled with inadequate staffing, poor care, and correctional officers that slept on the job.

Angela Fischer worked at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Phoenix as a psychology associate for Corizon Health, the health care provider for Arizona’s prison system.

Thursday’s hearing was called after Fischer came forward with emails received and sent during her employment at the prison that she said showed failures by the state to make improvements to the prison healthcare system. Fischer resigned from her position in March.

Arizona agreed to make improvements to prison health care to resolve a class action filed by inmates in 2012 over deficient care.

Arizona did not admit wrongdoing under the settlement, but U.S. Magistrate Judge David Duncan has threatened to hold Charles Ryan, director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, in civil contempt and fine the state $1,000 for each instance it failed to make improvements to the system.

The state has acknowledged at least 1,900 violations that could cost it around $1.9 million in fines.

Fischer testified she had concerns the Phoenix prison was not adequately staffed to both perform intake services for inmates and to meet their mental health needs.

“My concerns were the actual treatment that was provided, actually spending time with people and providing mental health care to them,” Fischer told the court. “I felt we did a lot of box-checking and not providing care.”

Many days there were 60 to 80 inmates that would come in to intake, she said, but only one staff member assigned to them. Some days, Fischer would be told to help out in intake, which took her away from her psych assignment.

“It was this constant shuffling back and forth trying to get the intakes done,” Fischer said.

Fischer repeatedly addressed her concerns about the limited staff in emails to her supervisors, but did not see a change.

In one, Fischer called out Corizon’s mission and detailed failures to meet standards.

“By our Corizon mission we purport to use clinical best practices and evidence-based practices, neither of which are apparent given the fact that the staff is stretched so thin that they barely get time to check in with patients, let alone provide therapy,” Fischer wrote. “If we want a stabilization unit then we have to be staffed for stabilization. Inmates will not become stable by sitting in their cells alone 23 hours of the day.”

The state extended its prison health care contract with Corizon this year. The current contract, which ends July 1, will be extended to June 30, 2019.

Fischer detailed one inmate with a history of self-harm who was not properly classified when he went through the intake process.

“When this patient came in and had his intake assessment, the records may not have been reviewed thoroughly,” Fischer said. She said information included in his records indicated that his history of self-harming was not taken into account.

“It appeared to be a very quick intake assessment; under five minutes,” Fischer testified.

When she first met the inmate, she said he was completely psychotic. After they got his medication straightened out, he improved to the point where he had a roommate and wanted to be moved to a unit where he could spend some time outdoors.

He was never moved, though, and eventually his condition started to decline. The inmate ripped off part of his ear with a pencil and peeled away his toenails and parts of his eyelids.

She asked her supervisors if he could be moved to the Arizona State Hospital where he would receive a greater level of care and be allowed to go outside, but that request was denied.

Fischer is the second former Corizon employee to come forward with allegations of poor prison health care within the last six months.

Jan Watson, a doctor who performed part-time services for Corizon, testified in February about nurses withholding medications from inmates – including insulin – and denying them access to specialists.

Fischer said she also often complained to supervisors about correctional officers sleeping on the job when they were supposed to be watching inmates on suicide watch.

In one email, Fischer detailed two officers that were “sleeping, and I don’t mean dozing.”

“Can someone talk to DOC about some type of supervisory methodology that would prevent officers from sleeping?” she wrote.

While on the stand, Fischer read from another email she lodged that caused her to break down in sobs.

The email detailed how one inmate on constant suicide watch attempted to hang himself while correctional officers were asleep.

David Fathi, an attorney for the prison class and director of the ACLU National Prison Project, asked Fischer if she witnessed the emergency response by prison employees when the inmate was found hanging.

“He was lying on the floor and they were trying to use a tool to cut the thing off his neck, but the blade wasn’t sharp enough to cut it so it took extra time,” Fischer said, choking up. Officers were able to get him to gain consciousness, though, and he was transported to a hospital.

The hearing is expected to last through Friday and an additional two days. It’s unclear when Duncan will issue his order, but he has announced he will retire June 22 due to medical reasons.

Arizona is trying to have Duncan removed from overseeing the contempt findings. The state wants U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa to take on the case, a request attorneys for the inmates say only serves to prevent sanctions.

"There is no reason to jettison the substantial time and effort that Judge Duncan and the parties have devoted to the issues other than the fact that the defendants fear adverse rulings,” the attorneys wrote in a court filing Tuesday.

The state previously tried to remove Duncan from the case, but he denied the motion.

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