A collection of reports the American Civil Liberties Union commissioned has cast Arizona’s prison system as one of the worst in the country in terms of medical care for inmates.
The ACLU commissioned the reports to support a suit it has filed against the prison system on behalf of 13 inmates.
Dr. Robert L. Cohen wrote in his Nov. 2013 report for the ACLU that, based on his extensive background in correctional system medicine and the conditions he found in the Arizona prisons, “my opinion is that the ADC (Arizona Department of Corrections) health care delivery system is fundamentally broken and is among the worst prison health care systems I have encountered.”
State prison officials declined to comment in detail on the case and the recent release of the ACLU reports because the matter remains in the courts. But a spokesman did provide a brief statement disputing the ACLU’s claims.
“While the plaintiffs have sought to try their case in the media, the ADC will present its evidence and arguments in Court, where it will offer its own expert opinions that paint an accurate and realistic picture of inmate health care and conditions of confinement,” ADC spokesman Doug Nick said.
Cohen said he visited the Arizona Department of Corrections facilities at Eyman and Lewis in writing his report, one of seven such reports the ACLU commissioned in preparation for a class-action lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections.
In June, a federal appeals court judge allowed the plaintiffs to pursue the class-action suit, expanding the case from the original 13 inmates who filed the complaint to include all 34,000 inmates in state prisons.
Plaintiffs claim the Arizona Department of Corrections and its contracted health care provider routinely delay or simply deny medical care to inmates. It accuses the state of presiding over a system of inadequate medical, dental and mental health care.
Cohen, who worked as a health care provider in New York’s Rikers Island jail and served on the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, wrote the prison health care systems in Arizona lack the capacity to care for inmates suffering from severe medical conditions.
“As a result, prisoners are denied basic and necessary health care for their serious medical needs, and they are suffering substantial harm as a result,” Cohen wrote.
His report documents cases of numerous inmates whose medical care he believes was delayed or needs ignored as result of inadequate oversight and insufficient staffing.
In one case, he says an inmate who complained of severe throat pains waited months for medical staff to provide antibiotics.
The inmate later underwent a tonsillectomy but several months later was diagnosed with throat cancer. The report says the inmate still did not receive treatment for four months after the diagnosis.
Another inmate with a broken hand had to wait nearly a month for an x-ray, which the doctor did not review for another ten days. Even though his broken bone was documented at that time, the patient did not see the orthopedic specialist until three months after the initial injury, according to the report.
In addition to claims of insufficient care, Cohen’s report says the prisons he visited also had deficient medical facilities.
“Medical equipment was broken, covered in dust, and in some cases based on logs attached to them, had not been repaired or checked in more than a decade,” he wrote.
In another instance, Cohen described a prison medical facility as having “clinics and equipment on display, but curiously, neither clinical staff nor patients.”
Sara Norman, an attorney with the California-based Prison Law Office who is working for the plaintiffs, said the purpose of the lawsuit was not to force the state to provide “Cadillac care” for inmates.
“We’re talking about people who are begging for care for cancers that are growing inside their bodies,” she said.