Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Arizona Prisons Face Federal Sanctions Over Prisoners' Health Care


Let's turn our attention now to Arizona, where state prisons might be facing new federal sanctions because of a court case involving prisoner health care. The company Corizon provides health care to inmates. And a former doctor with the prison system is accusing the company of deliberately withholding treatment and medicine in order to cut costs. Corizon is already under court order as part of a settlement with tens of thousands of inmates who sued over their treatment. Jimmy Jenkins from member station KJZZ and NPR's criminal justice team has the story.

JIMMY JENKINS, BYLINE: Like a lot of inmates with a serious illness, Neil Wiles needs consistent care. He has full-blown AIDS and other complications from the virus. But he's been having trouble getting treatment.

NEIL WILES: The meds I take, there's, like, three of the main ones. And if I don't have all three of them together, they don't do any good at all.

JENKINS: Some days it's two pills, other days it's one. He says he hasn't had access to a specialist in months. And there are plenty of others just like him.

CORENE KENDRICK: We are seeing problems with people with cancer getting chemotherapy in a timely manner. We are seeing people with severe pain not getting it appropriately managed.

JENKINS: Corene Kendrick is an attorney representing Wiles and the 33,000 other inmates in Arizona prisons who sued over their medical treatment in 2012. They reached a settlement, and the state was supposed to deliver better health care and greater access to specialty care.

KENDRICK: So that includes people being seen by oncologists for treatment for cancer or people with broken bones getting seen in a timely manner by orthopedic surgeons and other specialists.

JENKINS: But court records show, despite the settlement agreement, Corizon has not hired enough specialists. That's angered the federal judge overseeing the case, who has suggested the company is refusing to treat patients to save money. Under the agreement, Corizon submits reports to the state to show they're in compliance with prisoner health care standards. But a former prison doctor has come forward to challenge the company's reports. Dr. Jan Watson worked in health care for more than 30 years. Then she took a job at an Arizona state prison.

JAN WATSON: And I had never seen anything like that in my life.

JENKINS: She says Corizon purposefully understaffed their clinics and denied referrals for specialty health care. Even urgent requests for patients with heart attack symptoms and seizures were turned down.

WATSON: It was just no, no, no, all the time.

JENKINS: Corizon Health doesn't dispute Watson's account, but CEO Stephen Rector says they're cleaning up another company's mess. Corizon took over the state prison health care contract from another private company, Wexford Health Services, in 2012. Rector says since that time compliance rates for the settlement have increased.

STEPHEN RECTOR: A common misperception is that we would somehow benefit from providing lower quality care. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

JENKINS: But the ACLU's David Fathi, an attorney representing the inmates, says that's exactly what's happening. He believes Corizon's numbers, even after vetting from the state, are suspect.

DAVID FATHI: Month after month, at multiple prisons, we have found mistakes in their compliance numbers. Sometimes it's because they're simply not counting what the agreement requires them to.

JENKINS: Other times, Fathi says, the record keeping appears more like fraud, a claim the company denies. But they'll have to face those allegations in court. Emails provided by Dr. Watson prompted an investigation into Corizon Health. A federal judge is hearing testimony this week to decide whether harsher oversight is needed. That could include appointing an independent monitor and enforcing the settlement with fines. For NPR News, I'm Jimmy Jenkins in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jimmy Jenkins