Man Can No Longer Walk After Broken Leg Goes Untreated In Arizona Prison
Nathan Alvarez can’t walk anymore. He’s been in a wheelchair since February.
“I was getting off my bunk and I missed the step down and broke two of my bones in my leg,” Alvarez recalled in a phone interview from the state prison in Yuma. “It was two loud cracks. I’ve never heard anything like that before. It was pretty obvious."
Alvarez says the injury happened in the middle of the night.
"Everyone in the pod started kicking on the doors to get the COs (correctional officers) attention to come in there."
He says he sprawled around in agony for about 40 minutes until officers took him to the medical clinic.
Despite his leg looking swollen and awkwardly distorted, Alvarez says an employee of former health care contractor, Corizon Health, was reluctant to send him out for specialty care.
“I was like, 'I need to go to the hospital.' And the nurse on staff was like, 'I agree, but you don’t know my provider.'”
Since Corizon took over as the state prison health care contractor in 2012, inmates have repeatedly alleged in court filings and testified in hearings that the company has delayed care and denied them specialty services. In 2018 a federal judge fined the state more than $1 million for poor health care conditions and ruled that Corizon was unable to meet inmate health care needs.
After his injury, Alvarez says the nurse at the Yuma prison wrapped his ankle in an elastic bandage with a splint and made him wait until noon the next day to have X-rays taken at the prison.
"Everyone up at medical, all the nurses and everything, come into see it," Alvarez laughed, "because they heard how bad it is. And were like, ‘Oh, my God. Yeah, it’s very broken.'"
Six hours later, about 18 hours after the injury, Alvarez says he was finally taken off site.
"So, I go to the hospital. They’re like, ‘Oh, wow. Your leg is really messed up, and you should have been in here a long time ago.'”
Alvarez says they sent him back to prison with instructions to come back in a week, but what followed instead was months mix-ups and neglect. He claims he was taken to the wrong doctor twice. The surgeon told him he didn’t understand why Corizon had referred him because he didn’t specialize in leg injuries.
But Alvarez says everyone’s diagnosis was basically the same.
“Each doctor requested that I needed a surgery, and I needed it done a long time ago.”
Dr. Craig Weinstein is an orthopedic surgeon based in Gilbert, Arizona, who reviewed Alvarez’s X-rays for KJZZ. Dr. Weinstein said Alvarez "has a complicated fracture pattern.” He says the treatment plan for this kind of injury can be different for each patient.
"The general goal is to try and get all the breaks to heal, so that he can have a stable ankle to eventually resume walking on,” Weinstein said.
After three months, Alvarez says he was finally taken to an orthopedic trauma surgeon.
“And that’s when I get told, ‘Oh, well, you know, it’s been too late for the surgery, because it's been so long your bones have healed,'" he said.
Alvarez’s mother, Ashli Goodspeed, lives in Texas.
"It’s been frustrating and aggravating," she said of her son's injury. "And, basically, I just feel helpless."
Goodspeed says she’s contacted the Arizona Department of Corrections and Corizon multiple times to no avail.
She hopes to take Nathan to an orthopedic surgeon when he comes home, but she worries he’ll suffer from permanent damage.
"The physical therapist, when he finally went, told him, 'Yeah, your leg is always gonna be crooked now,'” she said.
Goodspeed says her son has a lot challenges ahead of him, and this injury is only going to make things more difficult.
“He has a 6-year-old daughter here that I have custody of, and she's a very active 6-year-old, you know? He’s gotta be able to chase after her and just take care her of her. And how’s he gonna do that if he can’t walk?”
The Arizona Department of Corrections disputes Alvarez’s claims. A spokesman said there is a well-documented history of treatment for his injury but privacy requirements prevented prevented the release of specific details.
A spokesperson for Corizon would only say Alvarez had received treatment and would not provide an example. Centurion Managed Care, the new Arizona prison health care contractor as of July 1, did not return a request for comment.
Alvarez says he’s concerned about how he’s going to make a living when he leaves prison next month.
“It’s already going to be hard enough finding a job with my record and now if construction is out of the equation that makes it a lot harder,” he said. “I just have this release date. I can’t count on anyone in here to get this done you know?”
Alvarez gets out Aug. 8. He says he wants to hold his daughter and learn to walk again.