Arizona Inmates Mocked by Jailers for Illness, Denied HIV Tests and Pain Medication While Dying

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Privatized prisons, also called for-profit prisons, bring with them a host of serious issues. One of the major concerns is that inmates will be treated poorly and subject to inhumane conditions as corner-cutting to expand profits is all but inevitable. Places were cuts will dramatically affect quality of life include healthcare, inmate educational programs/libraries, and of nutrition.

One of the long-term effects of inmates becoming nothing more than money generating machines is that the staff of the prison dehumanzes the population it is supposed to serve until the inmates and their treatment no longer seem important. This concept is clearly born out in the ongoing legal battle between 33,000 incarcerated people in Arizona and the prison holding them. The class action lawsuit, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf on the inmate, has already made public some very shocking truths about the medical care provided to inmates in these prisons.

In a period slightly longer than six months in 2013, no fewer than 28 prisoners died of non-traumatic means (not suicide or murder) and non-accidental means. In none of these cases was a full autopsy performed. The physician who reviewed the medical records for those deaths found that in at least 13 of the 28 “patients received¬† care that was grossly deficient and well below the standard of care” (and many cases did not have sufficient records).

In most of these cases, the inmates were repeatedly denied medical care or treatment. The reviewing physician found that the patients suffered severe pain and endured treatment complications due to these denials. In some cases, staff reportedly taunted and mocked the inmates requesting medical attention, even telling a man who was dying of untreated (and undiagnosed until the week of his death) lung cancer that he was faking it.

Some of the most harmful actions taken by prison staff (according to their own internal records) include:

  • Delaying care for a man with laryngeal cancer, possibly shortening his life.
  • Repeatedly denying the same man with laryngeal cancer pain medication in his last months, despite having metastatic cancer.
  • Stopping medical testing on a female inmate despite orders for ongoing testing for a serious chronic condition, prescribing her a known dangerous combination of medications, and failing to schedule a necessary specialist consultation.
  • Ignoring lab results and patient complaints of severe pain and having a nurse decide not to admit a man who was, in fact, dying of liver failure.
  • Refusing a patient HIV tests despite multiple requests. The patient died of AIDS-related pneumonia.
  • Ignoring abnormal lab results and unstable vital signs in patient with a history of heart and liver disease, who died within three weeks while regularly requesting medical attention.
  • Mocking a man who was repeatedly falling and injuring himself, complaining of extreme pain, and rapidly deteriorating, telling him he was faking his symptoms. He died of lung cancer.
  • Ignoring clear signs of sepsis (blood infection) in a patient who died because he did not receive timely emergency care.

In the end, the doctor’s findings are best summed up in his own words: “Based upon my extensive background in correctional medicine, experience as a medical monitor in several states, and my investigation into the conditions in the Arizona prisons, my opinion is that the ADC health care delivery system is fundamentally broken and is among the worst prison health care systems I have encountered.”

It should be noted that these are additional cases being presented as part of the appeal of the lawsuit, which was originally filed in 2012. These newer cases are all from a period in 2013 and seem to be indicative of a systemic failure to provide basic medical care for inmates.

Prisoners are human beings too, and as such, they deserve access to basic medical care. Denying a dying man pain medication in his final weeks is cruel and unusual punishment. So is mocking a man for falling down because his body is losing the fight against cancer. Surely some prisoners, like some students, fake medical conditions or illnesses to get attention, sympathy, or just to break the monotony of their daily lives. However, that should not be a reason for prison guards and prison medical staff to deny all inmates medical care. There should not be a presumption that someone is lying just because they say they are in pain.

Surely, at least some of those who died needlessly in these Arizona prisons were there because of non-violent drug offenses. Fewer people should be seeing the inside of prisons, and those who do should be treated with dignity and be rehabilitated. Sadly, as long as someone is making money off of other humans’ incarceration and suffering, these kinds of abuses are sure to continue.


Photo Credit: Photographer unknown under public domain via Wikimedia Commons