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Trial starts in healthcare lawsuit against Arizona's Department of Corrections

It’s a fight that’s been going on for nearly a decade and one that’s come with costly fines for the state of Arizona.

On Monday, Arizona’s Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry, or ADCRR went before a federal judge in Phoenix to face complaints about healthcare for inmates. 

It's been a fight that's gone on nearly a decade where the department has been repeatedly accused of failing to provide inmates in state prisons with proper healthcare.  

The original class-action lawsuit filed back in March 2012 focused on more than a dozen inmates that detailed problems with medical, mental and dental healthcare, like some inmates not getting care or treatment quickly enough. 

It also highlighted concerns for inmates in isolation. They’re represented by organizations like the ACLU and Arizona Center for Disability Law among other plaintiffs who are bringing in new witnesses to argue the same problems from 2012 are still happening to this day.

Concerns over care

Corene Kendrick, Deputy Director of ACLU's prison project has been on the case since it was first filed in 2012.

"People with very serious medical conditions, heart conditions, cancer and the like not sent to see specialists in a timely manner," she explained. "People with serious mental illness not getting proper medication, treatment or therapy and repeatedly engaging in acts of self-harm or committing suicide."

One example 12 News highlighted back in 2014 was Tony Lester.

Lester was an inmate with schizophrenia who died in his cell after cutting himself with a razor. 

He’d been on suicide watch before and the lawsuit claims prison staff didn’t go in to help him in time.

"Correctional officers were there waiting for him to die," his aunt told 12 News in 2014.

RELATED: Suicides are on the rise in Arizona prisons and inmate advocates think they know why

Settlement agreement and contempt fines

Both sides were supposed to go to trial in 2014 but instead reached a settlement. In it, the ADCRR agreed to meet certain benchmarks for standards of care.

However, a judge found ADCRR in contempt of court twice for missing the marks over the past few years. The first time was in 2018 and the state was fined $1.4 million. The second time was in February 2021 and the state was fined $1.1 million.

In July 2021, a judge threw out the settlement agreement and ordered each side to go to trial.

ADCRR said it couldn’t comment on pending litigation, but court records show they’ve blamed contracted care providers and COVID-19 as some of the reasons for potential problems with care.

"That’s not an acceptable excuse," Kendrick explained. "Because at the end of the day, legally the state of Arizona and the DOC are legally responsible to provide basic services to the people that the state has chosen to lock up and to incarcerate."

Kendrick claims problems persisted over the past decade while each side has been fighting this case.

The plaintiff's first witness Monday was an inmate serving time for sexual assault and burglary.  They claim she waited years to get treatment for multiple sclerosis, putting her in a position where she can’t walk on her own.

"It just seems like there’s been a lot of squandered opportunities and a multitude of needless suffering and harm by people who are in the prisons," Kendrick said.

The court proceedings are expected to last through the end of the week and potentially into the following weeks.

RELATED: Arizona prisons not providing treatment programs to most inmates, report finds

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