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Judge threatens to fine Arizona in prison health care suit

May 7, 2019
FILE - This Aug. 19, 2010 file photo shows Arizona Corrections Director Charles Ryan at a news conference in Phoenix. A judge overseeing a legal settlement over the quality of health care in Arizona's prisons has threatened to impose as much as $1.7 million in additional contempt-of-court fines against the state for failing to adequately improve inmate care. Nearly a year ago, another judge found Ryan to be in civil contempt of court and fined the state $1.4 million for noncompliance. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

PHOENIX (AP) — A federal judge overseeing a legal settlement over the quality of health care in Arizona’s prisons has threatened to impose as much as $1.7 million in additional contempt-of-court fines against the state for failing to adequately follow through on its promises to improve inmate care.

Judge Roslyn Silver said in an order Monday that the state remains noncompliant with many elements of the 4-year-old settlement, including some measures on which the state had previously been found by a court to have fallen short. Nearly a year ago, another judge found Corrections Director Charles Ryan to be in civil contempt of court and fined the state $1.4 million for noncompliance.

The state’s “continued excuses for noncompliance do not reflect the seriousness of their prolonged breach of the stipulation (the settlement) or the ramifications of their failure to meet their obligations in the affected fundamental aspects of health care delivery,” Silver wrote.

The judge set a July 1 deadline for the state to fully comply. She said she would impose $50,000 for each performance measure that’s not met at each prison.

The state hasn’t fully complied on 21 performance measures, such as ensuring newly prescribed medications be provided to inmates within two days and making medical providers tell inmates about the results of pathology reports and other diagnostic studies within five days of receiving such records. Silver said certain instances of noncompliance occurred at multiple prisons.

The Department of Corrections declined to comment on Silver’s threat of fines.

Corene Kendrick, an attorney representing the prisoners, said it’s possible the state could come into compliance on some measures by the deadline.

“I think they would have to throw a lot of resources at it,” Kendrick said, explaining the noncompliance stems largely from understaffing in the health care operations at prisons.

The 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 that 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 an inmate’s metastasized cancer resulted in his liver enlarging so much that his stomach swelled to 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 allegations that it was providing inadequate care, and the lawsuit was settled without the state acknowledging any wrongdoing.

Late last year, Silver raised the possibility of throwing out the settlement and resuming litigation, saying the state’s insistence on defending its noncompliance was ill-advised. She also said if a constitutional violation were found at trial, she could consider a number of remedies, such as appointing a special master who, on behalf of the court, would oversee improvements to inmate care.

The state paid the $1.4 million fine issued in June by Magistrate Judge David Duncan and was later fully reimbursed by Corizon Health Care, which has provided health care in Arizona’s prisons for more than five years. Another company, Centurion of Arizona, will take over as the state’s prison health care provider on July 1.

Gov. Doug Ducey, who is Ryan’s boss, has expressed confidence in his corrections director after he was found to be in contempt of court last summer. The governor has said he wants state agency directors, not judges, running their departments.

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Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud.

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