AFSC’s efforts to expose and improve prison conditions in Arizona are yielding results. The state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) has postponed its plan to contract for the building of 5,000 private, for-profit prison beds, and also has finally agreed to investigate serious charges of health care denial in its prisons.

DOC Director Charles Ryan recently told a legislative oversight committee the state will not act on proposals for additional private prisons until the completion of a report comparing private- and publicly-run prisons. The report was required by state law but has never been done. AFSC had filed suit in September to prevent DOC from awarding contracts until the study was completed.

AFSC took legal action because of concerns with conditions at the state’s existing private, for-profit prisons. These include a lack of accountability and oversight in the wake of escapes last summer that led to two deaths, and serious harm to inmates of color.  

The court dismissed AFSC’s request for an injunction but only on the issue of whether the plaintiffs had standing, not the substantive issues they raised about the failures of for-profit prisons. AFSC appealed on November 21.  AFSC has appealed the decision and is awaiting assignment of the case to the state appeals court.

There are currently five private for-profit prisons in Arizona, housing about 6,400 of the approximately 40,000 people incarcerated by the state. Six prisons operated by Corrections Corporation of America also in the state house prisoners from California, Hawaii, and federal agencies such as the Bureau of Prisons and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Nationally, about 99,000 people are held in private prisons, up one third over the last decade.

DOC also has agreed to investigate the denial of health care to inmates with serious problems in order to stave off a lawsuit. Advocacy groups including The California Prison Law Office and the ACLU had charged the DOC had left untreated scores of prisoners with serious physical and mental health problems, leading to amputations, loss of sight, and a suicide rate double the national average for incarcerated people.

Two facilities holding over 5,000 inmates had only half the required five doctors on staff. One facility had only one half-time psychiatrist for more than 1,000 mental health patients; at another, such patients were often not treated for six months or more, charged the Prison Law Office. Corrections officials admitted to the vacancies, citing the impending privatization of health care and a state law setting extremely low payments to providers.

“Our work in Arizona has helped place a national spotlight on the problems of prison privatization and inadequate health care wherever it happens,” says King Downing, who leads AFSC’s healing justice team.

“We were the first to report on health problems in Arizona prisons in Buried Alive our report on solitary confinement and the mentally ill. For years we have been strategizing to build a case, providing potential witnesses and whistleblowers for the potential lawsuit. And a member of our  committee is a part of the legal team,” says Caroline Isaacs who heads AFSC’s Arizona office.