Current Inmate, Former Doctor To Testify In Special Arizona Prison Health-Care Hearing

By Jimmy Jenkins
Published: Monday, February 26, 2018 - 6:31pm
Updated: Wednesday, April 8, 2020 - 12:03pm

(Photo by Jimmy Jenkins - KJZZ)
Carmen Valenzuela holds a picture of her son Gregory, who she says is not getting proper care for leukemia while in an Arizona prison.

After KJZZ published Dr. Jan Watson’s emails from her time working in the Arizona prison health-care system, U.S. Magistrate Judge David Duncan called a special hearing to investigate the claims. The initial hearing was pushed back due to the scale and complexity of the witnesses and documentation involved.

On Tuesday, Duncan will hear testimony from witnesses to decide whether he can trust information provided by Corizon Health as the state attempts to comply with a years-old settlement agreement.

Class-Action Lawsuit

In 2012, a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the men and women in Arizona prisons, alleging poor health-care conditions. The prisoners and the state reached a settlement in 2015 that established a stipulation — a set of performance measures — the state would have to meet to prove it was providing better health care.

The state has a team that monitors Corizon as it carries out its health-care contract with respect to the stipulation. But this process has been regularly questioned by lawyers representing the inmates. They allege inaccuracies in the monitoring system and a continuation of the poor conditions that led to the initial lawsuit.

Monitoring Process In Question

When Judge Duncan read Dr. Jan Watson’s documents and accounts aloud in court, he confirmed for the first time that they echoed many anonymous voices his chamber had already heard from. Duncan said people have contacted his staff with regard to the state of the prison health-care system to say “it is so much worse than what you think.”

Plaintiff’s attorneys have also repeatedly pointed out what they believe to be errors in the monitoring system.

Dr. Jan Watson
Jimmy Jenkins/KJZZ
Dr. Jan Watson.

But Watson’s account was the first time anyone had gone on the record with what the judge called a potential “smoking gun” -- an email indicating a purposeful and systemic attempt to perform an “end run” around the monitoring system.

Watson will testify at a hearing on Tuesday, along with several current employees of Corizon Health and the state, in regard to the allegations of wrongdoing.

State Loses Fight To Delay Hearing

In two separate filings, the state has maintained that Judge Duncan acted improperly by taking media reports into consideration as he monitors the settlement.

Duncan rejected the idea that he was not able to make a judgment on what to investigate in the case.

“It’s not as if I’m trying to put my nose where it doesn’t belong,” Duncan said in court.

“I’m putting my nose where you all asked me to put it. You asked for me to be the person who would preside in this case, so you consented to me,” the judge said to the two parties in the settlement. “You chose me, and you chose somebody who didn’t just fall off the turnip cart.”

The judge went on to list his credentials and decades of experience practicing law.

“It’s as if over 30 years of practice I have learned some things about how to look at a situation and try to make intelligent decisions to help people accomplish what is our common obligation — and that is to comply with the law,” Duncan said.

The state pushed back again in a 700-page filing late Friday evening alleging that Duncan had become biased and should be disqualified from the case.

Citing a similar failed attempt by attorneys representing former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Duncan denied the motion to stay the hearing, saying a recusal motion should be made in a timely fashion.

“This is especially true when the late-assertion of recusal comes in situations like the present case, where litigants sit on known information while the court makes intervening rulings and complains only after receiving an adverse decision,” the judge wrote.

Duncan added that moving forward with the hearing was in the public interest.

“The State agreed to the Stipulation over three years ago, has expended significant resources on this matter, and has fallen short on meeting its own Benchmarks,” Duncan wrote in a response filed Monday. “The public interest in the ... hearing and the evidentiary hearing — both aimed at examining whether the State of Arizona is meeting the basic health care needs for the 30,000-plus inmates in its care — seems self-evident.”

If Duncan decides he can no longer trust Corizon, the judge could appoint an independent monitor to take over the state’s role in the settlement.

Meanwhile, Cancer Patients Go Without Treatment

Inmate William Upton will testify on Tuesday against the objections of the state. Upton has been seeking cancer treatment for years but claims he has not been getting proper care.

Attorneys for the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to inmates to help them improve their conditions of confinement, have written 11 letters to state officials on Upton’s behalf since October 2016.

In a letter to KJZZ, Upton writes that he was first diagnosed with cancer in September 2015. An inmate at a state prison in Florence, Upton says for the next two years things progressively got worse.

“I began filing a series of health need requests and medical grievances,” Upton writes, “not only for further treatment of the cancer but for the severe pain associated with it.”

He says the cancer had spread to his bone marrow, making him weak and susceptible to breaks. Upton alleges Corizon would not approve treatments that would have prevented his cancer from spreading, and denied his requests for adequate pain management.

“I began suffering severe nosebleeds,” he says, “and my throat became infected. I became severely ill and bedridden and had great difficulty breathing.”

Carmen Valenzuela’s son, Gregory Valenzuela, is experiencing similar delays related to cancer treatment.

Valenzuela has been advocating for her son to receive proper treatment for leukemia while he finishes his sentence in an Arizona prison.

“He was seeing an oncologist about every three weeks, however that stopped,” Valenzuela says. “My fear is that he’s not getting the proper blood tests to tell my son where he’s at in his treatment and to see if it’s working or not.”

She said she feels confusion and anger toward Corizon and the state as her son’s condition worsens behind bars.

“I have my faith and that’s what sustains me at this point,” she said.

She hopes that by the time her son is released, she can get him proper medical care. She says her weekly visits are the only thing giving him the hope to stay alive.

State Faces Milions In Potential Fines

In a second hearing on Wednesday, the judge will decide whether to assess fines for violation of the stipulation.

If Duncan uses his authority, the state could face a $1,000 fine for every violation.

The state previously disclosed more than 650 violations at six state prisons for the month of December. Another recent filing revealed more than 400 additional violations at the state prison in Florence for failing to meet a performance measure that guarantees “chronic disease inmates will be seen by the provider as specified in the inmate’s treatment plan, no less than every 180 days.”

The new violations would bring the total fines for the month of December to more than a million dollars.

Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan told state lawmakers at a recent hearing that if the fines are enforced, Corizon Health would pay.

“I’ve already made it clear to the vendor that they’re on the hook,” Ryan said.

The hearings come as the Arizona Department of Corrections is reviewing bids for a new, five-year contract to provide health care to inmates. Ryan confirmed that Corizon Health is one of the providers and is seeking to renew its contract, which is potentially worth more than $140 million annually.

Arizona Prisons