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Suit attacks quality of health care in AZ prisons

A lawsuit filed Tuesday alleged that Arizona prisons don’t meet the basic requirements for providing adequate medical and mental health care to inmates and that prisoners face dangerous delays and outright denials in receiving treatment.

Corrections officials are accused in the lawsuit of having a deliberate indifference toward the suffering of prisoners and failing to correct problems after they were brought to their attention. The lawsuit alleges there aren’t enough health care workers in prisons to treat more than 33,000 inmates and that critically ill inmates were told to be patient and pray to be cured after they begged for treatment.

Among its allegations, the lawsuit contends that a prison medical staff’s failure to diagnose an inmate’s metastasized cancer resulted in the man’s liver enlarging to where his stomach looked like a full-term pregnant woman’s belly. Another inmate who had a history of prostate cancer had to wait more than two years for a biopsy. And nothing was done for another inmate who suffered from depression, had asked staff members for help because he was suicidal and later killed himself, according to the lawsuit.

“It has gotten worse in the past four years as people are looking to cut corners and save a buck,” said Dan Pochoda, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, one of the groups representing the 14 prisoners who filed the lawsuit.

The prisoners who filed the case aren’t seeking money damages and instead asked for a court order declaring that Arizona’s prisons violated prisoners’ Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. They also want an order requiring a plan to better staff the prisons with health care workers and other steps.

The filing Tuesday marks the latest filing in a 2010 case filed by inmate Robert Gamez. Two earlier versions of Gamez’s lawsuit were dismissed, but he was allowed to re-file the case. The version filed Tuesday launches a broader attack on health care in Arizona’s prisons, includes 13 other inmates as plaintiffs and seeks class-action status for thousands of other inmates.

The lawsuit said corrections officials were aware of the system-wide deficiencies, but ignored the warnings. It cites a December 2009 email to Arizona Department of Corrections director Charles Ryan from a prison physician who complained that the corrections officials were breaking the law by not providing adequate health care.

The lawsuit said another prison official responded on behalf of Ryan and pointed out that the corrections department wasn’t yet found to be deliberately indifferent to the health care needs of prisoners.

“Is the Department being deliberately indifferent? Maybe. Probably,” the lawsuit quotes the official’s email as saying. “That would be up to a federal judge to decide. I do think that there would be numerous experts in the field that would opine that deliberate indifference has occurred.”

Bill Lamoreaux, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Corrections, declined to comment on Tuesday’s filing.

Pochoda rejects the view that prisoners, by committing crimes, have put themselves in situations where they get bad care. “No one put themselves in a situation where they are facing death because of the callousness of the care givers,” Pochoda said.

The lawsuit said the medical staff at the state prison complex in Tucson didn’t diagnose inmate Ferdinand Dix, who had lung cancer that had spread to his liver and other organs.

His liver was enlarged to four times its normal size. No medical staff member had examined Dix by touching his abdomen, which would have revealed his liver problem. Instead, Dix was told to drink energy drinks. His abdomen was distended to the size of a full-term pregnant woman when he was finally taken to an outside hospital in February 2011. He died a few days later, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said inmate Shawn Jensen, who is serving time in the Department of Corrections’ Tucson complex and has a history of prostate cancer, faced delays in having his cancer diagnosed and treated.

A prison doctor referred Jensen for a biopsy in January 2007, but the inmate didn’t get the procedure until October 2009 and wasn’t operated on until July 2010. Jensen experienced gaps as long as two months in getting the prison pharmacy to give him chemotherapy drugs. After the surgery, Jensen has received incompetent medical care, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit said mentally ill prisoners on suicide watch complain that correction officers harass them and that guards in the suicide watch units at the state prison complex in Perryville frequently pepper spray women prisoners in their eyes and throats when they are delusional or hallucinating.

The isolation cells used at some prisons also comes under attack in the lawsuit.

Some prisoners in windowless isolation cells are often disoriented because they don’t see natural light, suffer from undernourishment, get few meaningful opportunities for exercise and can go months without significant human contact, other than seeing officers deliver food trays and placing them in restraints, the lawsuit said.

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