Arizona Privatized Prison Health Care to Save Money. But at What Cost?

In 2017, Walter Jordan wrote a memo to a federal judge from the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence. “Notice of Impending Death,” it said in a shaky hand.

Jordan told the judge that Arizona corrections officials and Corizon Health, the state prison system’s private health care contractor at that time, delayed treating his cancer for so long that he would be “lucky to be alive for 30 days.” Jordan, 67, had a common form of skin cancer that is rarely life-threatening if caught early, but said he experienced memory loss and intense pain from botched care. Other men in his unit were also denied treatment, he wrote, “all falling, yelling, screaming of pain.”

Jordan was dead eight days later.

Reviewing his medical records later, Dr. Todd Wilcox, a physician hired by lawyers for the state’s prisoners, agreed that Jordan’s death was likely preventable. Corizon’s treatment of Jordan’s “excruciating needless pain,” was “the opposite of how cancer pain should be managed,” he said.

Wilcox will take the stand in a landmark trial that begins Monday in Phoenix, the latest chapter in an almost decade-long struggle to determine whether Arizona’s prisoners are getting the basic health care they are entitled to under the law.

The trial pits Arizona against the people held in its prisons, who argue in a class-action lawsuit that the medical services they receive are so poor, they constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The state’s current health care contractor, Centurion, is the latest in a string of companies that have failed to pass muster with the courts.

None of the companies have been named as defendants in the lawsuit, because, the claimants say, the state is ultimately responsible for their care. The suit was originally filed in 2012, shortly before private contractors took over Arizona’s prison medical services. But whether privatization can provide decent care is one of the biggest issues looming over the trial.

The Arizona Department of Corrections declined to comment on pending litigation. Centurion of Arizona and Corizon, based in Tennessee, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Arizona is one of around two dozen states that use a private, for-profit contractor to provide prison medical care, and almost all have been sued. But a trial is rare, as most states settle to avoid this kind of exhaustive public scrutiny.

Health care in Arizona prisons is “grossly inadequate,” the prisoners have said in

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