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Verdicts & Settlements

Judge Sanctions Arizona Department of Corrections Over Poor Prison Healthcare

— June 26, 2018

Last Friday, a judge found the Arizona Department of Corrections and its administrators in civil contempt of court for failing to meet the conditions of a 2014 settlement concerning the quality of healthcare in state prisons.

Arizona DOC director Charles Ryan and medical director Richard Pratt were both named in the ruling, which will emplace $1.4 million in sanctions against the department.

The judge requested that Pratt, Ryan and the Department of Corrections submit proposals on how the sanctioned amount might be spent to improve prison healthcare.

“The inescapable conclusion is that Defendants are missing the mark after four years of trying to get it right,” wrote Duncan on Friday. “Their repeated failed attempts, and too-late efforts, to take their obligation seriously demonstrate a half-hearted commitment that must be braced.”

Former Maricopa County, AZ, Sheriff Joe Arpaio was also found in civil contempt of court last year. Arpaio purportedly enforced a racial profiling regime against persons of Hispanic descent even after being ordered to stop by a judge. Image via Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons. (CCA-BY-2.0) reports that the case against the Department of Corrections was first filed in 2012 by the Arizona Center for Disability Law. Working on behalf of 13 inmates, the Center alleged inadequate healthcare.

The ACDL was later joined in litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union and the California-based Prison Law Office.

While a settlement was reached in 2014, Magistrate Judge Duncan continued monitoring its outcome. Agitated at a lack of continued compliance, he issued a series of warnings up until the summer of 2017.

Incensed, Duncan ordered hearings. Pratt, Ryan and the department’s healthcare contractor, Corizon, were called to testify on the still-dismal condition of clinics in state prisons. AZCentral writes that it later emerged that agreements between the DOC and Corizon stipulated that the latter would be responsible for paying any sanctions.

“The evidence suggests that the States’ recalcitrance flows from its fear of losing its contracted healthcare,” wrote Duncan. “But even if true, such fear is not a factor that can properly be considered in determining what steps the State must take to meet the health care needs of its inmates. If a private contractor is pushed to the door because it cannot meet the State’s obligations, then so be it.”

Corizon’s chief executive, Steve Rector, issued a statement condemning Duncan’s decision.

“This legal battle unfortunately also underlines why incarceration policy is best made under the direction of Arizona’s elected policy leaders, the governor and State Legislature and not in courtrooms,” Rector said.

Ryan, writes the New York Times and Associated Press, has had a controversial tenure as head of Arizona’s Department of Corrections. He came under fire in 2009 after an inmate died in an “unshaded outdoor holding cell” during “triple-digit heat.” Five years later, prison officials were accused of botching the execution of Joseph Wood, who was administered 15 doses of an injection intended to kill.

And in 2014, a prison teacher sued the state after being raped by a sex offender.

In her suit, the educator charged Ryan with allowing the understaffing of state prisons and lax security measures.

Arizona’s so far reacted with hostility to Friday’s ruling, blasting Magistrate Judge Duncan’s decision—both to levy sanctions against the state and his decision to take a month-long medical leave after the ruling.

“This is an unjustified ruling against an agency that has done everything in its power to comply with the court’s orders,” said Daniel Scarpinato, spokesman for Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey. “We stand by Director Ryan and will continue to challenge any judge who attempts to set agency policy from the bench.”


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