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Arizona settles class-action lawsuit over prison health care

PHOENIX — The state of Arizona agreed to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of 33,000 inmates over the quality of health care in its prisons.

The agreement ended the class-action case just days before it was to go to trial, officials said Tuesday.

As part of the settlement, the state agreed to seek more money from the legislators to increase staffing for medical and mental health care workers and offer all prisoners between ages 50 and 75 colon cancer screenings.

The American Civil Liberties Union said health care inside of the Arizona Department of Corrections’ prisons was horrible.

“I personally have been involved in prison litigation for over 40 years, and I have never seen a worse example of inadequate medical and mental health care,” said Dan Pachoda, legal director for the ACLU in Arizona.

Pachoda said that critically ill patients died because they weren’t treated in time. Some who wanted to see a doctor were allegedly told to pray for a cure. He said that the corrections department settled the lawsuit by agreeing to over 100 “benchmark” changes.

“There are specific treatment requirements for certain diseases, including Hepatitis C and others,” Pachoda said. He said that the state will be required to provide medical treatment within “two to three months” of the prisoner’s request.

Also representing the plaintiffs was a group called the Prison Law Office. That group’s attorney, Corene Kendrick, is also happy with the settlement.

“They’ve also agreed to make a number of changes to the isolation units,” Kendrick said. Those changes include letting prisoners with mental conditions who are in solitary confinement out of their cells for 19 hours a week. Currently they are only allowed six hours per week.

The department said all of the talk about solitary confinement was misleading, claiming there is no solitary confinement.

“This term of ‘solitary confinement’ is antiquated and not applicable, and hasn’t been for years to the Arizona Department of Corrections,” agency spokesman Doug Nick said.

“There are single-cell environments that do fall into nationally accredited standards that require a certain amount of natural daylight for every inmate. They have the ability to have contact with others, and have out-of-cell time.”

The department said it’s done nothing wrong. Still, Nick called the settlement a positive development.

“We’re very happy to have come to an agreement,” he said.

Nick said that settling the lawsuit will avoid a costly trial and save resources that can be used to provide “constitutional health care” to inmates.

Pachoda said that the state has agreed to pay $4.9 million in legal fees as part of the settlement.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.