Arizona inmates went to court to describe their poor medical treatment: hours spent waiting for nurses outdoors in dangerous heat; cells so hot, inmates could barely breathe. Within days of their testimony, half of those inmates reported retaliation by corrections officers.
On July 14, four inmates went to court with allegations that could cost the Arizona Department of Corrections more than $2 million in penalties. The state prison system was flouting its basic rules for medical care, the inmates testified, putting people with health conditions at serious risk. But when they returned from court, the inmates found themselves in an even more dangerous prison environment, their lawyers claim in a new court filing.
The case has its roots in a 2012 lawsuit by Arizona inmates who also accused the state of lax medical practices, which they claimed resulted in unnecessary death and injury within the prison system. The case, which ballooned into a class action on behalf of 33,000 Arizona inmates, was eventually settled in 2014, with the Department of Corrections agreeing to strict new health standards.
But inmates claim the Department of Corrections has reneged on its promises to fix its health code.
In advance of the July 14 hearing, lawyers compiled a report detailing “2,127 separate incidents” from June 14 and July 11, in which the Department of Corrections allegedly failed its own medical standards. Among these alleged incidents were more than 1,100 cases in which inmates either did not receive their medications on time, or did not receive their medications at all. The report also detailed hundreds of cases in which medical reports went ignored for days or weeks.
During the July 14 hearing in a Phoenix court, four inmates described the Department of Corrections’ alleged violations in chilling detail. Instead of receiving prompt medical care, inmates are made to wait long hours outdoors in order to receive their medications, they testified.
“If you leave the area, you risk losing your place in line,” Mark Blocksom, an inmate at a state facility testified on July 14, the Phoenix New Times reported. Blocksom, who receives treatment for HIV, hepatitis C, and other ailments, said he has waited outdoors upwards of three hours. Other inmates have waited seven hours to see a nurse, he said.
“You’re waiting outside in the heat,” he testified. “In the winter it’s different, but in the summer, that can be pretty brutal.”
The heat in an Arizona prison cell is so bad “it feels like being trapped inside a bottle with a cork on it,” another testified. “I can hardly breathe.”
Another testified that diabetic inmates were skipping their insulin shots, out of fear of standing in the hot sun for hours.
The Arizona weather is more than uncomfortable—with Phoenix temperatures rising to 120 degrees earlier this summer, the heat can prove fatal. Such was the case in 2009, when an inmate at Arizona’s Perryville prison complex requested to see a psychiatrist. The inmate, 48-year-old Marcia Powell, was locked in an outdoor enclosure for at least four hours on a 107-degree day, purportedly while awaiting psychiatric help. She developed first- and second-degree burns before dying of heat exposure, an autopsy found.
During the July 14 hearing, attorney Kristin Eidenbach told a judge that few inmates were willing to testify about their medical treatment, for fear of retaliation.
“We are severely limited in our ability to present testimony to this court,” Eidenbach said, “because people are too afraid.”
Those inmates feared being placed in solitary confinement when they returned from the court, having their personal belongings confiscated, or facing harassment at the hands of corrections officers, Eidenbach said.
According to a new filing on July 20, the inmates’ fears were well founded. Within days of returning from court, two of the four inmates who testified said they faced retaliation from corrections officers.
One inmate said a deputy warden confronted him in front of his peers and threatened to move him to another cell, one which was not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the filing, reviewed by AZ Central. Another inmate who testified about poor medical treatment said corrections officers made good on threats to move her.
After her testimony, the inmate was made to move cells, she claimed in the court document. Alone in the new cell, the woman said corrections officers repeatedly woke her overnight. She fears that an officer might try to frame her by placing contraband in her cell, or that “she is being set up for injury by either staff or another inmate when she is alone in her cell at night, with no other witness to any physical or sexual assaults made against her,” the filing claims.
The Arizona Department of Corrections did not return The Daily Beast’s Sunday request for comment on inmates’ latest allegations. But the department has good reason to silence the inmates: Over $2 million is riding on their case.
During a June hearing, a U.S. District Court Judge David K. Duncan ordered a $1,000 penalty for each of the Arizona Department of Corrections’ future health care violations (PDF).
After hours of testimony on the Department of Corrections’ health care system, “I have just had enough,” Duncan said.
Between that June hearing and the July hearing at which the four inmates testified, lawyers counted 2,127 violations of the health care code at Arizona prisons.
That’s $2.1 million hanging on the testimony of Arizona inmates who say they’re being scared into silence.