Deal over prisoner care tossed over Arizona’s noncompliance

Court gavel

A judge threw out a 6-year-old legal settlement requiring Arizona to improve health care for thousands of prisoners, saying corrections officials have shown little interest in complying with their obligations under the deal and that it would be absurd to expect the state to act differently in the future.

In a withering ruling Friday, Judge Roslyn Silver opted against imposing additional contempt-of-court fines against the state for its longstanding noncompliance and instead said she will take the case to trial. The judge said the state’s failure to provide adequate medical care for prisoners has led to suffering and preventable deaths.

Not only has the state failed to fulfill its obligations, Silver said it offered "erroneous and unreliable excuses for non-performance, asserted baseless legal arguments, and in essence resisted complying with the obligations they contractually knowingly and voluntarily assumed."

The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry declined to comment on the ruling.

C.J. Karamargin, a spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey, said the ruling was being reviewed.

When questioned in the past about the court’s actions against the state for noncompliance in the case, Ducey has said he wants state agency directors — not judges — running state departments.

"The refusal by the state of Arizona to live up to the promises it made cannot be countenanced any longer," said Corene Kendrick, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who represents prisoners in the case. "We need to go to trial."

A court-appointed expert has concluded that understaffing, inadequate funding and privatization of health care services are significant barriers in improving health care for about 30,000 inmates in Arizona’s state-run prisons.

Judges in the case have hit Arizona with a total of $2.5 million in past contempt fines for noncompliance. Lawyers for the prisoners were seeking more financial penalties against the state.

Silver wrote the fines didn’t motivate the state to comply with the settlement. "There does not appear to be a contempt sanction robust enough to coerce compliance," Silver wrote.

In 2018, a magistrate judge imposed a $1.4 million contempt fine against the state, which paid the penalty but was later reimbursed by the company that at the time was providing health services inside prisons.

In late February, Silver issued a $1.1 million contempt fine. Corrections officials said they would ask the former contractor for reimbursement for the second fine, though it’s unclear whether the company has agreed to do that.

In the nine years since it was filed, the lawsuit has cost the state $20 million, including $10 million for attorneys defending prison officials and $8.1 million for lawyers who pressed the case on behalf of inmates, according to records.

The case was settled in 2014 just days before it was headed to trial.

The settlement arose out of a lawsuit that alleged the state’s prisons didn’t meet the basic requirements for providing adequate medical and mental health care for prisoners.

The lawsuit 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 said 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.

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