Arizona Prison Officials Found in Contempt for Prison Health Care Failures

June, 2018


On June 22, 2018, the federal district court in Phoenix issued a scathing order in Parsons v. Ryan finding Arizona state prison officials in contempt of court for the Arizona Department of Correction’s ongoing failure to provide basic health care to the approximately 34,000 people in its custody.

Parsons is a statewide class action brought by the Prison Law Office and the ACLU challenging inadequate health care and excessive solitary confinement in the Arizona state prison system.  The case was settled more than three years ago and the settlement was meant to protect the rights and health of incarcerated people, but ADC has not lived up to its requirements.  The result: people in Arizona’s prisons are suffering and dying because of the state’s failures.

U.S. Magistrate Judge David K. Duncan fined ADC more than $1.4 million for numerous violations of the settlement agreement.  Judge Duncan also ordered the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee the state’s monitoring of its for-profit contractor, Corizon Health, in complying with the Parsons settlement.  “Defendants and their contractor are at times more interested in obtaining compliance with the Stipulation by playing a shell game than by providing care to the Plaintiff Class,” Judge Duncan wrote.  The court also ordered ADC to retain independent experts to advise the Department on how to provide adequate medical care to our clients.

Prior to the issuance of the contempt order, Judge Duncan had warned the state in October 2017 that there were more than two dozen performance measures in the settlement agreement with which they were chronically and profoundly noncompliant.  These included such basic requirements as ensuring that prisoners received their chronic care and psychotropic medications without interruption, and that urgent outside specialist appointments be completed within 30 days of referral.  Even after that warning, the state and Corizon were unable or unwilling to provide adequate health care.

This contempt order came after a series of hearings held in recent months regarding a possible finding of contempt and on the accuracy of ADC’s monitoring practices. Former Corizon employees came forward to blow the whistle about the inadequate medical and mental health care provided to Arizona prisoners.  The court  heard testimony from ADC’s physician monitor about mortality reviews that he did of deaths of incarcerated people in 2017, in which he found that the deaths were “caused by or affected in a negative manner by health care personnel.”

These included a 43-year-old who died from a staph infection, a 36-year-old who died from delays in diagnosis and emergency care for an aortic dissection, and three men died from complications from metastatic cancer, which spread throughout their bodies due to delays in care. They died excruciating deaths, their suffering aggravated by a failure to manage their pain properly.  Judge Duncan’s contempt order noted that “these mortality reviews consistently show a failure to properly document the medical care provided to inmates and a failure in written and verbal communication among the health care staff.”

The order also came after years of reports to the court by the Prison Law Office and the ACLU of ADC’s continuing and flagrant noncompliance with the Stipulation. In earlier reports to the court in 2015 and 2016, correctional health care experts documented grossly deficient medical care. Examples included a 44-year-old woman who bled to death after being given medication that was known to harm patients with her condition, and a 59-year-old cancer patient whose massively infected wounds were swarmed by flies in the days before he died.

But medical care is not the end of the horror for the people incarcerated in Arizona’s prisons. A lack of mental health care has been equally disastrous. In the spring of 2017, there were four suicides in three weeks in Arizona prisons, an astonishing rate of self-harm in a state prison system.

Contempt is the strongest sanction available to a court. A judge turns to this tool only after all other efforts to enforce compliance have failed. Contempt is how the court can bring it into line and protect Arizona prisoners.  In his order, Judge Duncan wrote: “The inescapable conclusion is that Defendants are missing the mark after four years of trying to get it right. Their repeated failed attempts, and too-late efforts, to take their obligation seriously demonstrate a half-hearted commitment that must be braced. … Accordingly, it appears the Court must do what Defendants will not: compel compliance with the Stipulation.”

The contempt order is meant to force the Arizona Department of Corrections to follow the law and protect the lives and health of incarcerated people.

The Prison Law Office and the ACLU National Prison Project are lead counsel on the case.  Additional attorneys representing plaintiffs include Eidenbach Law, PC, the ACLU of Arizona, Perkins Coie, Jones Day, and the Arizona Center for Disability Law.


Local media coverage of the contempt order includes the following:

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