A recent story published by Courthouse News Service details a legal case in Arizona that deserves to be making headlines nationwide. There has been a lot of media coverage over the last few years of the abuses of the private, for-profit prison industry. The Arizona case, however, highlights what can go wrong even when the state is still in charge. It also reminds us of the critical role our courts play in overseeing those with power and ensuring they do their jobs properly and humanely.
In Arizona, according to the news service, the state retained control of the prisons that are the focus of the lawsuit, but contracted out medical services to “Corizon, one of the nation’s largest prison health care providers.” Citing reporting by local NPR affiliate KJZZ, the news service writes that a Corizon staff member told a doctor working with the company part-time “to cancel a pending infectious disease consultation for a prisoner” because the consultation was past due and the company risked being fined for its slow response. The whistleblower also reported instances of critical medication, such as insulin, being withheld from prisoners and of her superior ordering her not to treat an inmate who had suffered a heart attack. She alleges she was told to spend less time with patients and focus on paperwork instead.
This case raises serious political issues, reminding us that the ‘savings’ offered by privatizing public services can sometimes be illusory. It also raises an equally serious civil rights issue. As I have noted in the past, federal, and many state, laws require that inmates receive a level of health care comparable to what they could expect to receive were they free. Failure to provide that level of care is a civil rights issue as defined in 42 US Code 1983. This statute protects anyone who has been deprived of “any rights privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” by the government at any level. Crucially, that responsibility extends to the government’s agents – in this case, private contractors. Corizon is a private company, but because it is working for the government, the government’s obligation to provide proper medical care extends to the company itself. Corizon, in legal terms, becomes a “state actor” because they are under contract to, in this case, Arizona to treat people who are, ultimately, in the state’s care.
It is worth adding that here in Oregon the state freely acknowledges this, notably on the Oregon Department of Corrections’ “Health Services” web page (see link below).
As a Portland attorney practicing in both Oregon and Washington I have long been concerned about the outsourcing of critical services in prisons and other places. It is important for government at all levels to understand that its obligations to prisoners and other Oregonians do not end when a private company is hired to take care of some of the state’s duties. It is equally important for those companies to understand that working for the government does not shield them from legal accountability if they fail in their obligations to prisoners, patients, schoolchildren or anyone else with whose care they are charged. Civil rights do not end when the government hires someone else to do its job. 42 US Code 1983 provides an essential tool for anyone seeking to enforce accountability.
Courthouse News Service: Damning Testimony on Medical Care in Arizona Prisons