The Arizona Republic, which interviewed current and former prisoners and reviewed dozens of inmates' letters of complaint, reported inmates saying they have lost sight, had body parts amputated, been severely disfigured and suffered repeated seizures as a result of a lack of proper medical care.
The Prison Law Office, a legal advocacy group for prisoners nationwide, said the state has violated state and federal law and the U.S. Constitution by routinely denying medical care and mental health care to inmates.
The group agreed to delay any lawsuit for three months after the Arizona Department of Corrections signed a Nov. 17 agreement to investigate the prisoners' medical claims.
"State prison officials are deliberately indifferent to the serious healthcare needs of prisoners and to the prisoners' unnecessary and significant pain, suffering and even deaths," Donald Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office, wrote in an Oct. 12 letter to state Corrections Director Charles Ryan.
The group says a lack of care may contribute to a prison suicide rate in Arizona -- 14 in the fiscal year that ended in June -- that is more than double the national average.
State corrections officials said they have not found systemic problems in care but acknowledge it has been harder to fill medical-staff vacancies because of pending plans to privatize prison healthcare and 2-year-old rules that cut payment rates to outside contractors.
The Republic cited examples, including a diabetic prisoner who lost sight in one eye and partially in the other while waiting months for insulin; a man denied treatment for a growth on his penis, which was diagnosed as cancerous and led to the amputation of the organ while the cancer spread to his stomach; a man with a cancerous growth on his lip who waited six months for treatment, leading to most of his lip and mouth being removed, leaving him permanently disfigured.
Karyn Klausner, the department's general counsel, said treatment delays did not lead to the inmates' loss of sight, amputation of the penis or disfiguring facial surgery.