Denied Painkillers, Paralyzed Prisoner Chews Own Fingers OffNewsweek
January 14, 2018
A paralyzed man held inside an Arizona prison chewed off three fingers on his left hand in a desperate attempt to receive treatment for "excruciating pain" from previous injuries, according to new court papers filed in a legal fight over private prison health care.
"He reported that the terrible pain he felt makes everything else seem insignificant," stated a letter from a lawyer representing inmates in the state's prisons. "He chewed off part of the fingers on his left hand because the pain was so unbearable."
The man, who uses a wheelchair and is not identified in the court papers filed Friday, told prison medical workers they weren't giving him the right pain medications and that he would rather kill himself than live in such extreme agony, according to his medical records.
The extreme example of a man mutilating his own body is part of an ongoing battle over inmate health care in Arizona, as well as the broader national issue of how budget-minded states use private companies to care for its prisoners.
A group of inmates sued the state in 2012 over prison conditions and the two sides reached a settlement in 2015 that required Arizona to reform medical care in its prisons, which is now provided by for-profit company Corizon Correctional Healthcare.
But both the state and Corizon have shown "pervasive and intractable failures to comply" with the settlement and provide better care, the federal court judge overseeing the agreement wrote in an October order.
During a hearing in the case last month, Judge David Duncan asked Richard Pratt, the health director for Arizona prisons, whether he had trouble sleeping at night because inmates with cancer weren't getting treatment. Pratt answered that he relies on Corizon to provide that care.
The filing Friday revealed other disturbing examples of apparently substandard care in Arizona prisons.
One woman complained of a mass in her breast-and a family history of breast cancer that killed her sister-but Corizon workers denied her a mammogram because she was only 37 years old. Her treatment was delayed for months and once she began chemotherapy, Corizon only provided her with Alleve to manage the pain, according to the filing.
A major problem with private companies providing health care in prisons is that the company has an incentive to provide as little expensive care as possible in order to boost their profits, prisoner advocates say.
But Corizon spokeswoman Martha Harbin has disputed that argument, claiming that their workers aren't paid based on the company's financial performance.
"We bring services inside the walls and help states and counties meet their constitutional requirement to provide a community standard of care to those incarcerated within limited public budgets," Harbin said in an email last month.
A spokesman for the Arizona Department of Corrections declined to comment on ongoing litigation last month, but told Newsweek in an email the department expects Corizon to provide all inmates with the "constitutionally-mandated health care" to which they're entitled.
The man who gnawed off his own fingers told the lawyer from the Prison Law Project who interviewed him in December that he tries to keep the pain inside him, but "the tears fall inside."
In a letter to the state, the lawyer wrote, "He keeps a photograph of his daughter posted above his bed to remind him that he needs to get out of prison for her."