PHOENIX — Arizona’s corrections director was grilled by a judge Tuesday over whether he tried to undermine a court order that prohibited retaliation against inmates who participated in a class-action lawsuit over the quality of health care in the state’s prisons.

Charles Ryan was called into federal court to respond to questions about a July 27 email he sent to prisons employees letting them know they had to follow the order. The email also said employees deserved better than “this preconceived order” and that the decision was based on only the accounts of prisoners.

“The tone of leaders matters on this,” U.S. Magistrate David Duncan told the prisons director, adding Ryan’s attorneys didn’t challenge the retaliation allegations.

Ryan denied that he was trying to undermine the order’s legitimacy and said his comments about the order weren’t intended to be disrespectful. “I followed your order,” Ryan said.

Duncan issued the order barring retaliation after two inmates testified at a July 14 hearing about what they said were barriers to health care while in prison.

One inmate was concerned that prison officers, by forcing inmates to move to other cells after he testified, were trying to make him a target of reprisal by portraying him as being the cause of the transfer. Another inmate said her cellmate was transferred and given a new roommate who is a gang member with a reputation for violence.

The retaliation allegations surfaced in a lawsuit that challenged how the state administers health care in its prisons. The lawsuit said some prisoners complained that their cancer went undetected or they were told to pray to be cured after begging for treatment. It also alleged that the failure of medical staff at one prison to diagnose the metastasized cancer of one inmate resulted in his liver enlarging so his stomach swelled the size of a pregnant woman at full term.

The state denied the allegations that they weren’t providing adequate health care for prisoners.

The lawsuit was settled in 2014 on behalf of more than 30,000 Arizona inmates, without the state acknowledging any wrongdoing.

The attorneys who filed the case say prison officials have been dragging their feet in making changes they promised when settling the case more than two years ago.

Duncan has threatened — but hasn’t actually imposed — fines of $1,000 for each instance in which the state is falling short in making improvements to health care, such as ensuring that chronic-care and psychotropic medication renewals are to be made without interruption. The fines that could be imposed for month of June are estimated at more than $2 million.

The two prisoners who alleged retaliation had testified about the use of “open clinics” at prisons that let inmates access care when they need it without having to complete a form saying they need medical care.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Ryan drank water from a bottle as Duncan took issue with the prison director’s response to his court order, saying this wasn’t the first retaliation allegation to be made against his agency during the case.

Duncan said the explanations offered by the state for the actions taken against the inmates who testified at the July 14 hearing “didn’t even pass the straight-face test.”

Despite Duncan’s assertion that the state’s lawyers didn’t challenge the retaliation allegation, Ryan still said he didn’t believe his lawyers had an adequate opportunity to examine the witnesses. In offering critical comments about the order, Ryan said he wasn’t trying to telegraph to employees that it was OK to ignore the order.

Ryan also was asked about a comment he made during a conference call about the order in which he said Duncan was micromanaging the Department of Corrections.

The magistrate said he doesn’t want to micromanage the agency, but said the state prisons haven’t been able to make the changes they promised when settling the case. “Unfortunately, I can’t always get the full story” from the Department of Corrections, Duncan said.

Ryan assured Duncan he would follow the court’s orders. “I believe, with all due respect, I want you out of this case as bad as anybody else,” Ryan said, drawing laughter and agreement from Duncan.


Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at https://www.apnews.com/search/jacques%20billeaud .