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Fee Award in Arizona Prison Healthcare Suit Helps Fund Legal Services for Immigrant Detainees, ACLU

by Joe Watson

A law firm that helped represent Arizona prisoners pro bono in a lawsuit against the state’s Department of Corrections (ADC) over substandard medical treatment is using the attorneys’ fees it was awarded to further other social justice initiatives. In related news, two years after reaching a settlement in the case, the state was still in violation of its terms, leaving many prisoners without adequate healthcare.

The law firm of Perkins Coie, LLP joined with the California-based Prison Law Office and the ACLU’s National Prison Project to represent 33,000 Arizona prisoners in a federal class-action suit, Parsons v. Ryan, that sought improved medical, mental health and dental care in the state’s prison system. The parties reached a settlement in October 2014. [See: PLN, Feb. 2016, p.56; Sept. 2012, p.34].

However, a Phoenix TV station reported that prisoners still were not receiving adequate care from Corizon, the ADC’s contracted medical provider. KPNX News 12 broadcast interviews with Dr. Todd Wilcox and Dr. Pablo Stewart, who identified a number of Arizona state prisoners requiring urgently needed healthcare to avoid imminent harm or even death.

Perkins Coie and the ACLU returned to federal district court, accusing ADC officials of failing to comply with the settlement terms in a mediation hearing held before U.S. Magistrate John Buttrick. A notice of substantial noncompliance was submitted to the court on April 11, 2016.

The court agreed with the plaintiffs in November 2016, ordering the ADC to bypass Corizon and use community medical providers if prison staff are unable to comply with performance measures established as part of the settlement.

“Specifically, Defendants shall use all available community health care services including, but not limited to, commercial pharmacies, community-based practitioners, urgent care facilities, and hospitals ... to provide the health care services required in the Stipulation’s Performance Measures,” the court wrote.

The settlement required prison officials to improve standards of healthcare in more than 100 areas, including care for prisoners who are pregnant, diabetic or in need of dental work. It also required the ADC to provide mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement with mental health treatment and other programming activities. Such prisoners are supposed to be allowed out of their cells for 19 hours a week – more than three times what they received before the settlement. See: Parsons v. Ryan, U.S.D.C. (D. Ariz.), Case No. 2:12-cv-00601-DKD.

Besides agreeing to monitors to oversee compliance with the settlement terms, the ADC had also paid $4.9 million in attorneys’ fees. Perkins Coie, an international firm that donated more than 60,000 hours of free legal services in 2014 through its pro bono program, is using its portion of the fees to fund nonprofit and no-cost legal projects.

“Our practice is that any fees awarded to Perkins Coie for its work on pro bono matters are used only for pro bono related purposes – either donated to nonprofit public service organizations or used to fund pro bono initiatives at the firm,” said John Devaney, Perkins Coie’s managing partner.

Part of the law firm’s fees from the ADC case are being used to provide legal services for immigrant detainees through the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project. Lauren Dasse, the organization’s executive director, said funding from Perkins Coie will pay the salary for their legal director for two years.

“The Florence Project is the only organization in Arizona that provides free legal services to detained immigrant men, women and children,” Dasse stated in a press release. “We are thrilled to receive funding for a Legal Director position, which will allow us to deepen our advocacy and widen our impact.”

The ACLU of Arizona, also a recipient of funding from Perkins Coie, said the money it received will support “leadership development and training” for at least one of its staff attorneys. Alessandra Soler, executive director of the ACLU chapter, praised the law firm as “an indispensable partner.”