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Judge raises possibility of throwing out Arizona inmate health care deal

FILE - This Aug. 19, 2010 file photo shows Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan at a news conference in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

PHOENIX — A judge presiding in a legal settlement over the quality of health care in Arizona’s prisons has raised the possibility of throwing out the four-year agreement and resuming litigation over inmate care because of the state’s pervasive noncompliance with the deal.

U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver said in an order Thursday that the state’s insistence on defending its noncompliance, rather than remedying the underlying causes of its noncompliance, is ill-advised. “The court is disinclined to grinding down the well-worn path of noncompliance and failed remedial measures,” Silver wrote.

The threat to restart litigation came nearly five months after another judge, U.S. Magistrate Judge David Duncan, found Corrections Director Charles Ryan in civil contempt of court and fined the state $1.4 million for failing to make many of the improvements to inmate care that it promised when settling the class-action lawsuit. The state paid the fine and was later reimbursed by the private company that provides health care in Arizona’s prisons.

David Fathi, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represents prisoners in the lawsuit, said the ruling vindicates the orders of Duncan, who has since retired from the bench and repeatedly complained that the state was dragging its feet in making the improvements. “This is a crushing defeat for the defendants,” Fathi said.

Andrew Wilder, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Corrections, said in an email that the agency is reviewing the order. The agency had no immediate comment late Thursday afternoon on Silver’s order.

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. The governor has said he wants state agency directors, not judges, running their departments.

The state has followed through on some promises. But the areas in which the court required improvements included 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.

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. The lawsuit was settled in October 2014 without the state acknowledging any wrongdoing.

The case has proven to be costly for the state, which has so far paid $15.4 million, including $8.8 million for the attorneys defending Arizona prison officials, $5.7 million for the lawyers who pressed the civil case against the state, and other costs.

An additional $1.2 million was awarded to inmates’ attorneys for their efforts through July 2017 in enforcing a settlement, but that amount hasn’t yet been paid because the state is appealing the decision. Lawyers for the prisoners are requesting another $1.6 million to cover the costs of their efforts to enforce the settlement for the one-year period ending on June 30.

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