PHOENIX — In a story Oct. 10 about a lawsuit over health care in Arizona’s prisons, The Associated Press reported erroneously that American Civil Liberties Union attorney David Fathi represented prisons in the case. Fathi represents prisoners in the lawsuit.
A corrected version of the story is below:
Arizona officials threatened with contempt over prison care
A judge has warned Arizona Corrections Director Charles Ryan could be held in civil contempt of court for falling short in improving health care for inmates
By JACQUES BILLEAUD
PHOENIX — A judge has warned that Arizona Corrections Director Charles Ryan and another prison official could be held in civil contempt of court and the state could face fines for repeatedly falling short in improving health care for inmates.
The order Tuesday by U.S. Magistrate David Duncan comes as the judge and attorneys for prisoners have complained that Arizona prison officials were dragging their feet in making the improvements they promised three years ago when settling a class-action lawsuit that alleged inmates were getting shoddy health care.
Duncan said prison officials will be required early next year to file a list of every instance during December 2017 in which it was unable to comply with the changes. He threatened a $1,000 fine for each instance of noncompliance in December.
The magistrate also said he will impose civil contempt sanctions against Ryan and Assistant Corrections Director Richard Pratt, who oversees health care for prisoners, if there is convincing evidence that they haven’t taken reasonable steps to make the improvements.
The areas in which Duncan is requiring improvements include ensuring that newly prescribed medications be provided to inmates within two days and making medical providers tell inmates about the results of diagnostic studies, such as pathology reports, within five days of receiving such records.
Although the Department of Corrections hasn’t yet been fined, Duncan raised the possibility of such penalties earlier this summer. The possible fines for June alone have been estimated at $2.1 million.
“When state officials persistently and chronically violate a federal court order, that is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue,” said David Fathi, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represents prisoners in the lawsuit.
The Department of Corrections issued a statement saying it has already taken action to encourage its medical provider to meet the performance measures it agreed to when settling the case.
“The Arizona Department of Corrections remains firmly committed to holding its current contracted health care provider, Corizon, accountable for its contractual responsibility to provide inmates the constitutionally-mandated health care to which they are entitled,” the agency said.
The last high-ranking Arizona law enforcement official to be held in contempt of court was then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Arpaio was found in civil contempt in May 2016 for disobeying a federal judge’s order in an immigration case. He was later convicted of criminal contempt and eventually pardoned by President Donald Trump.
At a hearing this summer in the prison case, Duncan described the state’s efforts to overhaul health care for inmates as an “abject failure.”
The 2012 lawsuit alleged that Arizona’s 10 state-run prisons didn’t meet the basic requirements for providing adequate medical and mental health care. It 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 the medical staff at one prison to diagnose the metastasized cancer of an inmate resulted in his liver enlarging so much that his stomach swelled the size of a pregnant woman at full term. Another inmate who had a history of prostate cancer had to wait more than two years for a biopsy.
The state denied the allegations that they were providing shoddy 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.
This summer, Ryan was grilled in court by Duncan over whether he tried to undermine a court order that prohibited retaliation against prisoners who participated in the lawsuit.
The order issued Tuesday by Duncan didn’t address the retaliation allegations.
At issue in the retaliation allegation was a July 27 email in which Ryan told prison employees that they had to follow the order but said they deserved better than “this preconceived order” and that the decision was based on only the accounts of prisoners.
The corrections director had denied that he tried to undermine the order’s legitimacy and that his comments weren’t intended to be disrespectful.