KOLD Investigates: Arizona Department of Corrections prepares to defend itself in court

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Oct. 27, 2021 at 10:31 AM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry will head to court next week.

On Monday, Nov. 1, the department will defend itself against allegations it failed to provide adequate health care to inmates across the state.

The trial comes after years of failure by the ADCRR to meet inmate health care performance measures they agreed to in a settlement.

Dan Barr is one of the attorneys representing the 30,000-plus inmates in the system. He has been involved since the original lawsuit was filed in 2012.

The parties settled in 2015, so Barr said he did not expect to be going to trial in 2021.

“We all expected the State of Arizona to comply with the settlement and they never could do it,” Barr said.

The settlement includes more than 100 performance measures that would improve inmate health care, but the department has struggled to meet many of the benchmarks.

In 2018, a federal judge issued a fine of $1.45 million after it found the department to be in contempt.

In our September 2019 investigation, we obtained copies of temperature logs from facilities across the state. Those showed some units reached 115 and 117 degrees while other logs were only partially filled out or entirely blank.

Attorney Corene Kendrick with the ACLU National Prison Project has also worked on this case from the beginning.

We met with Kendrick in 2019 to discuss the problems with the temperature logs.

“Either there’s no information, there’s erroneous information. There’s information that appears to be falsified. They had at one point filed logs with the court showing temperatures for dates in the future. They said that was just a typo, and a mistake,” Kendrick said.

We interviewed Kendrick again in February 2021, after she reported violations of a mental health order.

One of the judge’s orders required inmates on suicide watch to be seen a minimum of 10 minutes and counseling appointments needed to be at least 30 minutes, with exceptions for meaningful encounters.

“We presented evidence showing that there were hundreds of encounters where the department had said we are complying with the order even though the encounters were very short and every single one they said was meaningful,” Kendrick said in February.

We obtained the reports the ACLU sent to the court, which showed patients on suicide watch were reportedly seen for no longer than five minutes. The ACLU reported one patient killed himself a few hours after being taken off of suicide watch while another, was taken off suicide watch after a three-minute encounter and killed herself four days later.

The department has now faced more than $2 million in fines for failing to correct these issues.

“We’ve had several federal judges issue orders sanctioning the state, several federal judges writing critical opinions about the state’s lack of performance. You have to just glance at Judge Silver’s 36-page order that she issued in July and it’s highly critical and pretty damning of the state,” Barr said.

Judge Silver’s order states in part, “Over the past six years, defendants have consistently failed to meet many of the stipulation’s critical benchmarks. Beyond these failures, defendants have in the past six years proffered erroneous and unreliable excuses for non-performance, asserted baseless legal arguments, and in essence resisted complying with the obligations they contractually knowingly and voluntarily assumed.”

She ordered the trial to begin no later than Nov. 1.

“At this point, there is nothing left to do but try the case and see if we get more adequate remedies,” Barr said.

Barr said some remedies could include ordering the state to hire more healthcare workers.

He said Judge Silver could also follow in California’s footsteps and appoint a receiver to independently determine how to supply healthcare to inmates.

Barr said he hopes the court will appoint a receiver because the same problems have continued to exist despite the state changing its healthcare provider.

“If the state isn’t willing to provide constitutional health care, then the court should consider appointing a receiver,” Barr said.

Barr said there are also concerns surrounding isolation in Arizona prisons, something the judge could modify.

The attorneys representing the inmates said they have run into problems preparing for trial as well.

Court documents show when one attorney attempted to conduct a deposition with an inmate, someone deployed pepper spray or a similar substance next door, which made its way into the room they were in, making it too difficult to continue the interview.

Multiple attorneys also reported major internet connectivity issues.

Now the plaintiffs have requested the inmates be allowed to testify in person.

We’ll let you know what the judge decides.

We requested a comment from the ADCRR, but the department said it does not comment on pending litigation.

KOLD also attempted to contact Gov. Doug Ducey’s office about the upcoming trial, but they did not return our requests for comment.

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