New developments in a continuing 12 News investigation. A win for prisoners and their families in this state. First the Arizona Department of Corrections refused to admit there is a dire problem with regards to the administering of health care to state prisoners. Today, a settlement agreement has been reached in the class action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, ACLU’s National Prison Project, The Prison Law Office, Perkins Coie, Jones Day and the Arizona Center for Disability Law against the Arizona Department of Corrections on behalf of 33-thousand prisoners.
The landmark case filed in 2012 was scheduled to go to trial next week in federal court in U.S District Judge Neil Wake’s courtroom. The lawsuit alleges prisoners are not receiving adequate medical care which led to deaths, mental health care and dental care. It also alleges excessive use of solitary confinement.
According to the terms of the settlement agreement, the Arizona Department of Corrections agrees to better monitor prisoners with diabetes, hypertension and other chronic conditions. The settlement also requires DOC to overhaul the rules for prisoners with serious mental illnesses in solitary confinement. Instead of spending all but six hours a week in their cells, these prisoners will now have a minimum of 19 hours a week outside the cell, and this time must include mental health treatment.
Restrictions will be placed on corrections staff when it comes to the use of pepper spray on specific inmates. Chemical agents shall only be used on inmates deemed seriously mentally ill, referred to as “SMI” in case of an “imminent threat.” That means if a severely mentally ill inmate tries to escape or poses a threat to security or himself, pepper spray can be used but should be considered a last resort.
Prisoners lawyers will monitor the care their clients are receiving by the private contracted health care provider, Corizon to make sure the state is in compliance. Attorneys’ and experts for the plaintiffs will also be given access to the prisons and documentation to make sure DOC is complying with the settlement agreement. They will be allowed twenty “tour days” per year inside Arizona’s 10 prison facilities.
According to the settlement terms, the DOC will be required to recommend a certain budget to the Arizona Legislature that will allow it to modify the current health care contract it has with Corizon, to increase staffing and mental health care positions. DOC is to ensure that all prisoners will be offered a yearly influenza vaccination. All inmates with chronic diseases will be given the required immunizations in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control. All female prisoners age 50 and older will be offered mammogram screening. Then every 24 months unless more frequent screening is indicated on the inmates medical chart.
“The Arizona Department of Corrections has agreed to changes that will save lives,” Director of the Prison Law Office, Don Specter said. “This settlement will bring more humane treatment for prisoners with serious health care needs, and the potential for their conditions to improve rather than worsen.” In the settlement paperwork, DOC denies all of the allegations in the complaint and maintains the settlement is not an admission of wrongdoing or liability. The settlement agreement is to remain in effect for at least four years before either party moves to terminate the agreement.
The DOC has agreed to pay attorneys' fees, totaling 4.9 million dollars to the ACLU of Arizona and the other lawyers which brought forth the suit. Our investigation revealed the state farmed out the defense of this lawsuit to private law firm Struck, Wieneke & Love in Chandler. Legal billing records obtained by 12 News show the private law firm has previously billed the state more than 3 million dollars for its work and that doesn’t take into account the last few months. When it’s all said and done, legal fees for both sides cost Arizona taxpayers roughly more than 8 million dollars in an effort to improve health care inside Arizona’s prison system.