The chief of Corrections defends care in Arizona prisons

PHOENIX (AP) – Arizona’s penitentiary chief testified Tuesday in a trial over the quality of medical and mental health care in state prisons that incarcerated people often have better access to health services than people who are not incarcerated.

Correctional Director David Shinn’s defense of the prisoner health system came after the state spent years behind bars complaining of poor health care and fined $ 2.5 million for failing to reach a settlement on the matter.

The deal was overturned this summer by a judge who concluded that the state showed little interest in many of the improvements it promised under the six-year deal and that inadequate care for prisoners had resulted in suffering and preventable death.

“They often have better access to health care than I do as a private individual,” Shinn said of prisoners.

Prisoners’ attorneys are calling on U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver to take over health care in state prisons, appoint an officer to direct medical and mental health services there, ensure prisons have sufficient medical staff, and reduce the use of isolation cells including banning their use by prisoners under the age of 18 or those with severe mental illness.

They said health care in the Arizona prison was understaffed and poorly monitored, routinely denied access to some necessary drugs, did not provide adequate pain management for terminal cancer patients and others, and did not meet minimum standards of mental health care.

The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry has denied allegations that it provided inadequate care, delayed or withheld care, and failed to deliver necessary medication. His lawyers said prisoners cannot meet the key elements to prove their case – that the state is deliberately indifferent to the risk of harm to prisoners, and that the health problems occur throughout the state prison system, not just one particular prison.

A court-appointed appraiser previously determined that staff shortages, inadequate funding and privatization of health services are significant barriers to improving health care in Arizona prisons.

The case challenges health care for the more than 27,000 people incarcerated in state prisons, not the private prisons that the state houses 7,500 other people.

Shinn, a former federal prison officer who was appointed to the state post by Governor Doug Ducey in October 2019, was grilled over the lack of law enforcement and health workers in Arizona prisons and expressed his confidence in the companies that provide health services in state prisons defended his agency’s efforts to protect against COVID-19.

Shinn said he believes Arizona prisons – which have confirmed at least 56 people incarcerated to have died from the virus and 80% of prisoners are vaccinated – are one of the safest places to go during a pandemic. For a period of the early pandemic, detainees in Arizona were banned from wearing masks, although that policy was reversed and detainees were provided with face covers.

Prisoner attorneys stressed that Arizona’s former prison health services contractor would have received a $ 5,000 monthly sanction from the state for non-compliance cases. The current contractor would only expect a US $ 500 penalty in such cases.

When asked if the current contractor had reassigned health workers to focus on compliance with the Arizona settlement, Shinn said he did not have the data in court to answer that question.

Shinn said his agency is working with the state’s health care provider to improve health worker recruitment. However, he thinks it is a myth that a certain number of health workers must go to certain facilities.

He said the state cannot force workers to move to communities they may not find desirable. He also said the state is using telemedicine to provide care to detainees in prisons away from urban areas.

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