How Poor Health Care Turned Walter Jordan’s Prison Sentence Into a Death Sentence

Walter Jordan tried to tell the world he was dying in prison in Arizona when he mailed a handwritten message, titled “Notice of Impending Death,” to the federal court in Phoenix. Nine days later, he was dead. According to Dr. Todd Wilcox, a physician who reviewed Jordan’s case, the 67-year-old might have survived if he had received competent treatment by the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADOC) and its private, for-profit health care contractor, Corizon Health.

Jordan died of an invasive squamous cell skin cancer that ate through his skull and invaded his brain. Dr. Wilcox identified multiple deficiencies in Jordan’s care, concluding that his death was “unfortunate and horrific” and that he had suffered “excruciating needless pain” in the final months of his life.

Jordan himself testified to his own impending death in his letter. “ADOC and Corizon delayed treating my cancer,” he wrote. “Now because of there [sic] delay, I may be luckey [sic] to be alive for 30 days.”

Jordan died in prison, but his words have reached us, and they are a call to action against poor prison conditions that lead to pain and death for prisoners who have a right to proper care from the institutions charged with their custody.

This is not a new problem.

In 2012, the ACLU, the Prison Law Office, and others sued ADOC, alleging that it failed to provide minimally adequate medical and mental health care to the 34,000 prisoners in its custody. In 2014, the parties reached a settlement with ADOC agreeing to comply with 103 performance measures designed to ensure that prisoners receive decent health care.

Three years later, ADOC remains chronically out of compliance with some of the most critical measures. These measures include ensuring that prisoners are transferred with their medications, making sure that prisoners needing to see an oncologist or other specialist are scheduled in a timely manner, and ensuring that patients who are sick enough to be housed in a prison infirmary are regularly seen by a physician.

You don’t have to look far for the likely causes of Arizona’s continuing inability to provide basic health care to prisoners. An outside hospital recently threatened to stop treating ADOC patients, citing $1.2 million in unpaid bills. Within the prison system, understaffing is a chronic issue. Fewer than 60 percent of physician positions are filled. One prison has had no mental health staff since May 2016.

Last month, Dr. Jan Watson, a physician who had worked in ADOC, spoke about her experiences there. She described being the only physician for more than 5,000 patients and having “inmates dropping left and right.” Watson described frequently running out of medications and having her requests for specialist referrals denied — “It was just ‘no, no, no,’ all the time,” she said. Her request for a neurology consult for a patient who had multiple seizures was turned down. Her supervisor told her “it costs too much money.”

But the cost of ADOC’s continuing noncompliance shouldn’t be measured in dollar amounts: It should be measured in human lives.

In an earlier report to the court, Dr. Wilcox found that nearly 40 percent of the prisoners whose deaths he reviewed had received grossly deficient care. Examples included a 44-year-old woman who bled to death after being given medication that was known to harm patients with her condition and a 59-year-old cancer patient whose massively infected wounds were swarmed by flies in the days before he died.

Adding to this startling information, Dr. Pablo Stewart, a psychiatrist, found ADOC mental health care to be likewise deficient, identifying a number of prisoner suicides that could have been prevented with adequate care. After a 25-year-old woman hanged herself, an investigation revealed that prison staff had falsified records to show that they had conducted required security checks on her unit, when in fact they had been eating and socializing in a control room. In the spring of 2017 there were four suicides in less than three weeks, an astonishing rate of self-harm.

ADOC officials may soon face the consequences of their ongoing failure to honor the agreement they signed. In October 2017, U.S. Magistrate Judge David Duncan, citing ADOC’s “pervasive and intractable failures to comply,” ordered top prison officials to show why they should not be held in contempt and fined $1,000 for each prisoner who does not receive the health care services to which he or she is entitled under the settlement. A contempt hearing will be held in late February.

Fixing Arizona’s broken prison health care system won’t be quick or easy, but a prison sentence shouldn’t become a death sentence for prisoners with treatable conditions.

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Dr. Timothy Leary

It is a prison, not a hospital. You cannot expect the prisoners to get the same treatment as you would a cool guy like Donald Trump.

Dr DJ Brumby


Dr. Timothy Leary

I am not a troll. Trolls live under bridges and have funny names like Rumpleforeskin. I am a provocateur (that's French).


Not remotely surprising treatment from a state and country that doesn't care about providing healthcare for all of its citizens that are not in prison. They certainly aren't going to care about their prison population. So much for American Republican Christian values.

To the Dr.'s supervisor who said "it costs too much money": why provide food & water to the prisoners? That "costs too much money" also. Just starve them to death and the state will save a tremendous amount of money - whether they die from starvation or lack of medical treatment, dead is dead. There's no difference in the final outcome. Starvation will generally take far less time to kill the inmate, resulting in an even greater amount of savings.

If you're going to imprison people, you are 100% responsible for their safety and well-being - NO EXCUSES. If you find it too expensive to imprison them, release them or raise taxes to pay for their care, OR fund programs/support policies that are shown to reduce the entry into the criminal justice system and recidivism. But those things fly in the face of the Republican belief system, so they're perfectly ok with them dying while reasoning that it's their own fault because their own actions put them in prison in the first place.


Perfectly said!!!!


My neighbor was busted twice for growing pot. He has some really expensive medical issues which is why the prison sent him home early both times he was sentenced to jail time.


Ummm...this would seem to be a chicken or egg question.

Dr Doctor

In general, squamous cell carcinoma only kills people if left untreated for a long, long time.

Daisy Rae M.

First and foremost, prisoner or not ( except child molestors and prison who committed any crime against children & rapists-they deserve the death penalty) they’re still people who have families that love and care about them. That’s still someone’s father, grandfather, brother, uncle, cousin, mother, or sister. The state of AZ is a joke when it comes to the prison system. Now paired up with Corizon Health, this duo of carelessness and negligence is unamountable. I personally have been dealing with both AZDOC and Corizon for the last 5 months. Corizon offices NEVER Answer their office phones, and their “friends & family” phone line , a got damn joke. The person never answers, and when she does you can hear just how much she loves her job of simply manning a phone line for concerned families or friends. I left voicemails for a week straight before even getting a callback. Then to be told they don’t work weekends?! Ok, does that go for my family members serious heart condition? Can that have weekends off? No, with that said we’ve been waiting over 4 months now for a specialist visit I which was denied due to lack of proof of medical necessity. Also, Drs employed by Corizon/adoc careless as my family member was misdiagnosed 2 times as he was on the Verge of a damn heart attack but yet sent him back stating it was just his asthma! Then their medical units are like Death Valley! Their sheets are covered in piss stains and still reek of urine! Inmates are sent there to be left alone and to die. Then the AZDOC policy of seeing a family member while escorted to an outside hospital is not right! We should be able to see our loved ones if hospitalized not after 30 days of them being in the hospital! Oh and another thing AZDOC notifies families of a loved ones health concern 24-48hours later! That right there is just NONSENSE! It makes you question if any of the staff has any moral or value to human life but their own. Had that been their family member, would they accept the same type of treatment? I don’t think so, just like another issue with staff who aren’t medically trained to make decisions on whether or not a complaint is an emergency or not especially after hours when medical is closed. While guards are fast asleep In their bubbles my family member sufferers for over 2 hours in his cell as him and his neighbors banged and yelled for help for him. He had complications breathing and had massive chest pains, to think if that happened again breaks my heart to know my loved ones life is of no importance compared to catching some zzz’s. I’m fighting the AZDOC & CORIZON and will continue to do so because I’ll be damned if my loved one dies because of the lack of care.


Thanks for your article and your work. The private prisons are also dangerous places to work. Why is that culture of staff so cruel? I was looking for a job after graduation, and the private prison group called Geo Group tried recruiting me, and offered me only average salary to relocate within AZ, and work as a counselor with their incarcerated sex offenders, 50 clients and myself in one room and safety monitored by prison guards. Well so I researched interstage violence in that Private prison group (Seeing I would be so dependant on other staff, and focused on the location I was considering, only to find countless prison guard violence against female staff. So I didn't interview.


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