A new, $1.2 million fine is hanging over the Arizona Department of Corrections for its years-long failure to provide inmates with decent medical care.
In court documents filed Friday in the class-action prison health care case Parsons v. Ryan, which was settled in 2014, Assistant Arizona Attorney General Michael Gottfried and four private attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver not to penalize the Department of Corrections.
They claimed that the transition in June and July from one private for-profit prison health care provider, Corizon Health Inc., to another, Centurion Managed Care, has been rocky. That was why ADC has yet to meet some two dozen court-ordered standards for adequate medical care, they tried to explain.
“As a result of this transition, there were several delays and interferences with Defendants’ ability to monitor compliance with the [performance measures],” they wrote.
Their claims seemed to ignore the fact that these performance measures, of which there are more than 100, date back to the settlement of Parsons v. Ryan.
“The case was settled five years ago, and they’re still not compliant,” Corene Kendrick, an attorney with the Prison Law Office who is co-counsel on the case, told Phoenix New Times.
Last year, the state was fined $1.4 million for failing to meet these standards, which were supposed to force the department to ensure that people incarcerated in Arizona receive adequate medical care. ADC has to report to the court its progress on tasks like monitoring inmates with chronic conditions or getting inmates to see nurses within a day of requesting care.
Despite its history of missing the mark, the department is blaming its ongoing failure to comply with 24 of these standards on a host of hiccups related to this year’s handoff: delays in scanning medical documentation, the misplacement of inventory logs, staffing challenges, and the loss of outside specialists.
“Both Defendants and their healthcare contractors took all reasonable steps to comply with the Order, but the pending transition of healthcare presented unexpected and atypical difficulties,” the state’s lawyers argued. “As a result, the Court should find that the Defendants took all reasonable steps to comply with the Order and should not impose the proposed contempt sanction.”
The potential sanctions come at a high price: $50,000 per performance measure. Multiple that by 24 performance measures, and the department could be out $1.2 million as it struggles to get its act together. Its director, Chuck Ryan, announced his sudden retirement on August 9, a few days before the governor’s office released a damning report that partially blamed Ryan’s leadership for widespread problems and scandals.
Judge Silver has given lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Prison Law Office, who represent the plaintiffs, until September 6 to file a response, and the state until September 20 to file its reply. Only after that will she decide what kind of fine, if any, to impose.
“It’s totally up to the judge in terms of when and how much,” Kendrick said. The judge could also order a hearing, she added.
In a declaration accompanying Friday’s filing, William Carr, the vice president of operations for Corizon, detailed some of the problems that the company had faced in handing its responsibilities to Centurion.
In order to comply with a performance measure on emergency medical response bags, for example, a Corizon employee is required to scan an inventory log to submit to the state. “During the transition, the inventory logs for June were inadvertently misplaced,” Carr’s declaration said.
Corizon also struggled to find and keep employees because of the pending handover, he added. Medical specialists outside the prison also cut ties with Corizon because of the switch in companies, so “there were less available providers for specialty consults, which affected the compliance scores.”
On Friday, the same day that the department begged the judge not fine it, ADC spokesperson Andrew Wilder told New Times via email that “the transition of services has been successful.” He did not respond to a follow-up query asking for an explanation as to why he told the public that the handoff was a success, when lawyers for ADC were simultaneously telling a judge that the messy transition was to blame for “delays and interferences.”
In June 2018, a judge fined the Arizona Department of Corrections $1.4 million for failing to comply with the court-ordered standards — $1,000 for 1,445 violations.
In his order, the judge 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.”