Prisoners Denied Medical Care, Told To Pray Instead

A year after a lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union alleging grave medical neglect of prisoners by Arizona’s private prison health care providers, prisoners have continued to die or endure unnecessary suffering after lack of basic treatment. After asking for medical assistance, many prisoners were told to “be patient” or “pray,” according to a new report. In a particularly tragic case, a man with lung cancer, Ferdinand Dix, issued multiple requests for medical treatment. Instead of receiving proper attention, Dix was told to drink energy drinks. The cancer ultimately moved to the rest of his body, severely impacting his liver and lymph nodes, and resulting in Dix’s death.

The new report by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) issued this month found that medical neglect included “delays and denials of care, lack of timely emergency treatment, failure to provide medication and medical devices, low staffing levels, failure to provide care and protection from infectious disease, denial of specialty care and referrals, and insufficient mental health treatment.”

The Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) has been under much scrutiny for over a year. While the AFSC findings reignited the discussion about medical malpractice in Arizona’s prisons, the ACLU drew attention to the issue in 2012 when it filed the lawsuit, Parsons vs. Ryan, against Charles Ryan and Richard Pratt, the ADC director and the director of ADC’s Division of Health Services. According to the case, prisoners are denied suitable health services. The ACLU explained that “Prisoners in the custody of the Arizona Department of Corrections receive such grossly inadequate medical, mental health and dental care that they are in grave danger of suffering serious and preventable injury, amputation, disfigurement and even death.”

Under the Eighth Amendment, prison officials are required to provide medical treatment. Prisoners are legally able to request consistent care, and services must be accessible. Proper medication must be dispensed to inmates, and dietary restrictions or needs must be accounted for. Prisoners must also have the opportunity to receive proper mental health “screening,” “evaluation,” and personalized care by mental health experts. “A prison official demonstrates ‘deliberate indifference’ if he or she recklessly disregards a substantial risk of harm to the prisoner.” These standards of practice, under the leadership of Ryan and Pratt, are unmet in Arizona correctional facilities, the ACLU has found.


The blatant disregard for health care highlighted by AFSC and the ACLU is commonly linked to the privatization of Arizona’s prisons. A Kaiser Family Foundation publication details the connection between privatizing health care and “serious neglect,” as companies attempt to keep costs down. In March, Corizon became the state-contracted company, under which medical services are arranged. Prior to that, Wexford Health Sources Inc. was contracted by the state to provide health care. Under Wexford, a number of prisoners were not given their prescription drugs, because renewals and refills were mishandled. In one of many preventable incidents, a man — who did not receive psychotropic medication over the course of a month — hanged himself. Even though Wexford terminated its contract, major problems persist under Corizon’s policies — the AFSC points to “additional…delays, and changes in staff, procedures, and medications.”

This year, the ACLU’s lawsuit was granted class-action status, which means the case now applies to every prisoner in Arizona. The state has the sixth-highest incarceration rate.