Inadequate Healthcare in Arizona’s Prisons Challenged by Families and Organizations

close shot of doctor taking the blood pressure of the patient

In May 2019, federal judge Roslyn Silver threatened the state of Arizona with a $1.7 million fine for contempt-of-court after the state failed to comply with a legal settlement from five years ago. Another judge had already given the state of Arizona a $1.4 million for the same reason in 2018. The settlement was about the appalling healthcare service deficiencies in Arizona’s correctional facilities. This is only the latest development in a struggle that began in 2012.

Poor Prison Healthcare by the Numbers

In July of 2010, a mentally-ill inmate at a correctional facility in Tucson slit his throat after he received a pack of razors in his hygiene kit by mistake. The guards of the facility filmed the event and stood around doing nothing for 23 minutes while he bled to death. This gruesome tragedy is only the symptom of a much larger issue in Arizona.

There is much to recommend about the state’s legal system and available services. People can contact legal counsels in Tucson or hire court reporters in Phoenix, Arizona with ease. But the state’s correctional system is another matter entirely.  A report released by the National Alliance on Mental Illness revealed that Arizona had decreased mental health care funds by 22.7 percent, or $108.4 million.

According to mental health advocacy groups, it’s ideal to have 50 psychiatric facility beds for every 100,000 people. But in Arizona, the ratio is as low as 4.1 beds per 100,000 citizens. This is woefully inadequate, considering that a study published in the American Journal of Public Health claimed that 18 percent of the American public suffers from a mental health disorder. The number is higher among the incarcerated, with up to 26 percent of the prison population needing mental healthcare services. Based on the accounts of other people, Arizona’s correctional facilities are not prepared to give them these services.

Service Inadequacies for the Incarcerated

patient talking to psychaitrist

The mother of an inmate acquired the health records of her son from the Arizona prison system’s healthcare provider. The records included documentation of her son’s mental health evaluations. Although the records say that physicians diagnosed him with an unnamed mood disorder and schizophrenia, they indicate that there were no further appointments for treatment. There were also no signs that he received a prescription for medication to help with the illnesses.

An employee of the healthcare provider quit her post in the psychiatric unit of a prison in Phoenix due to indignation at the severe gaps in service.  She revealed there was not nearly enough staff in the prison’s mental health department to cover the needs of the inmates. She said because of this chronic understaffing, prisoners were only receiving 10 minutes of treatment every week. For comparison, it’s ideal that a person with severe mental health issues undergoes at least 30 minutes of treatment per week.

These inadequacies were the cause of a 2012 lawsuit spearheaded by the families of 13 inmates who accused Arizona’s Department of Corrections of failing to provide these medical necessities. Organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Arizona Center for Disability Law, and the Prison Law Office, were vital in prosecuting the case. They reached a settlement with the state of Arizona in 2014, in which the state promised to enact 100 performance measures.

The recent contempt-of-court fines were because the prison system had failed to carry out 21 of the compliance measures years after they had reached a settlement. Families of inmates can only hope that these financial consequences help Arizona improve the way it helps the people put under its care.

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