Arizona loses contempt appeal in prison health care case
PHOENIX (AP) — A federal appeals court has upheld a 2018 contempt-of-court ruling against now-retired Arizona Corrections Director Charles Ryan for failing to follow through on promises in a legal settlement to improve health care for prisoners.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday dismissed the state’s arguments that the judge who found Ryan in civil contempt and imposed a $1.4 million fine against the state for noncompliance didn’t have contempt powers available to enforce the 5-year-old settlement.
The appeals court also rejected the state’s claim that while Ryan was found to be in civil contempt — a ruling meant to coerce people into following court orders — the sanctions were, in effect, more serious criminal contempt punishments that would have required a trial by a jury, not a judge.
For several years, the state has been dogged by complaints that it was dragging its feet in complying with the 2014 settlement, which resolved a lawsuit that challenged the quality of health care for the state’s 34,000 inmates.
The state’s continued noncompliance has led a judge to threaten a second contempt fine as high as $1.2 million and ordered lawyers for the state and inmates to decide whether they want to throw out the settlement and instead bring the case to trial.
The 2014 settlement arose out of a lawsuit that alleged that the state’s 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. The state denied allegations that it was providing inadequate care, and the lawsuit was settled without the state acknowledging any wrongdoing.
The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry issued a statement saying it’s working with its health care provider to improve services for inmates. “The department is committed to providing the same quality standard of health care to inmates that private citizens receive,” the statement said.
The agency didn’t immediately respond to a question about whether it would appeal the decision.
David Fathi, one of the attorneys representing the inmates in the lawsuit, said the ruling should serve as a wake-up call for the state.
“We hope that the state will now begin to comply with the settlement agreement,” Fathi said. “If it doesn’t, the court’s power to hold them in contempt is now no longer in question.”