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Contempt Ruling Against Arizona Corrections Boss Appealed

Ross D. Franklin/AP file

The Arizona Department of Corrections has asked an appeals court to throw out a contempt-of-court ruling against its director and a $1.4 million fine against the state for failing to adequately improve health care for the 33,000 inmates in state-run prisons.

The appeal made on behalf of Corrections Director Charles Ryan and his agency was filed Wednesday — two days after a judge threatened another round of fines for the state's failure to comply with a 4-year-old settlement over the quality of inmate care.

In the appeal, lawyers for the Department of Corrections say U.S. Magistrate Judge David Duncan didn't have the power to make the civil contempt ruling and impose the fine because the settlement was a private agreement, not a court order.

While the contempt ruling was deemed to be civil in nature and aimed at encouraging compliance with the settlement, lawyers for the state say it was really a criminal contempt decision that was aimed at punishing the Department of Corrections and deprived Ryan and another corrections official of their due-process rights, attorneys representing the state said.

The lawyers pointed out critical comments that Duncan, who has since retired from the bench for medical reasons, made about the truthfulness of people working at the Department of Corrections. They said Duncan's "exasperation with ADC does not furnish it any legal support for the sanctions order."

Earlier this week, another federal judge overseeing the settlement said the state hasn't fully complied with 21 performance measures within the settlement, 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.

U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver threatened to impose as much as $1.7 million in additional contempt-of-court fines against the state for its noncompliance. She set a July 1 deadline for reaching compliance.

Silver has said the state remains noncompliant on some of the very performance measures that led to last summer's contempt-of-court ruling against Ryan.

Corene Kendrick, an attorney representing the prisoners, said the appeal is an attempt to prevent the agency from being held accountable for repeatedly dragging its feet in complying with the settlement. She said the judges have the power to hold parties in litigation in contempt of court.

"They are saying that the stipulation is unenforceable because the court never ordered it, which just isn't true," Kendrick said.

The lawsuit alleged that Arizona'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.

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 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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