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Judge Threatens Arizona Officials with Contempt Over Inadequate Prisoner Medical Care

by David M. Reutter

On October 10, 2017, a federal district court in Arizona issued an order requiring officials with the Department of Corrections (DOC) to show cause why they should not be held in contempt of a 2014 court-enforced settlement agreement. U.S. Magistrate Judge David K. Duncan also threatened the DOC with sanctions of $1,000 per incident of noncompliance with its agreement to improve medical care for the state’s 33,000 prisoners.

Thirteen prisoners filed suit against the DOC in 2012, alleging deliberate indifference to their medical, dental and mental health care needs, as well as unconstitutional conditions of confinement within the DOC’s segregation units. The case was certified as a class-action and the parties eventually entered into an agreement in 2014 to remedy the constitutional deficiencies. [See: PLN, Feb. 2016, p.56; Sept. 2012, p.34].

Under the settlement, the DOC agreed to guidelines and benchmarks that both the plaintiffs and Magistrate Judge David Duncan said hadn’t been met. Instead, the agency has run an “understaffed” health care system, according to a summary of investigative findings published by Courthouse News, in which “an inmate died with infected lesions swarmed by flies, a man who ate his own feces was never seen by a psychiatrist, and a woman swallowed razor blades while allegedly under constant watch.”

It was such “pervasive and intractable failures” of DOC officials to comply with the settlement agreement that led Judge Duncan to issue the order to show cause.

“Since at least June 2017, Defendants have been on notice that the Court was considering some form of monetary sanction to achieve compliance with the Stipulation [agreement],” the show cause order stated.

In August 2017, Magistrate Duncan made DOC Director Charles Ryan appear before him to address claims that guards were retaliating against prisoners who had participated in the litigation.

Following Duncan’s entry of an order to end such retaliation, Ryan sent an email to DOC employees saying the magistrate’s “disappointing” and “preconceived order” was based solely on the prisoners’ allegations. He told his staff they “deserved better.”

Then, in a September 2017 filing, the ACLU said one of its attorneys overheard a guard telling other DOC employees, “Those fucking ACLU lawyers, who the fuck do they think they are telling us what we can and cannot do to inmates? I can do whatever I want, whenever I want.”

“All this disrespect for the rule of law,” a frustrated Magistrate Duncan said, “is something I have never experienced or seen in nearly 30 years of being an attorney, or in 16 years as a judge.”

During a court hearing, Duncan found the DOC had failed in its responsibility to provide adequate medical care in at least two ways – first by not ensuring that newly-prescribed medications were supplied within two days, and second by not making sure the results of pathology reports and other diagnostic tests were provided within five days. He said he would impose a $1,000 fine for each case of noncompliance beginning in December 2017, and ordered the DOC to list each instance of noncompliance on a monthly basis. After acknowledging at least 1,000 such incidents had occurred in December alone, the DOC faces fines of up to $1 million – though no penalties have been imposed thus far.

The DOC’s for-profit medical provider, Corizon Health, has a $125 million annual contract to provide health care at all state prisons. It is not a party to the lawsuit or settlement, but in a September 2017 e-mail presented to the federal court, a Corizon employee apparently attempted to circumvent the agreement by asking a doctor to withdraw a referral for a prisoner because the firm lacked the necessary specialist. Citing the potential fines, the employee wrote that “after 30 days we get nailed for 1,000 bucks a day until they are seen.”

Dr. Jan Watson, who worked in the medical field for more than 30 years before taking a job at a DOC facility, told NPR that Corizon intentionally understaffed prison clinics and denied referrals for specialty care.

“It was just no, no, no, all the time,” she said.

Saying the DOC “remains firmly committed to holding [Corizon] accountable,” spokesman Andrew Wilder said the agency had “taken significant and concrete actions” designed to “encourage Corizon to meet the specific performance measures” of the 2014 settlement agreement.

As if to emphasize his intent to shift blame for any wrongdoing or shortcomings to Corizon, DOC Director Ryan told state lawmakers at a February 2018 hearing that he had “already made it perfectly clear” to the company that it was “on the hook” for any fines.

Corene Kendrick, one of the attorneys representing Arizona prisoners who are still waiting for the constitutionally-mandated improvements in medical care, said the state cannot so easily shirk its responsibility under the agreement by passing the fines along to Corizon – fines that are imposed to force the state to take corrective action.

“When state officials persistently and chronically violate a federal court order, that is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.

A special hearing was held before Magistrate Duncan in March 2018. Dr. Rodney Stewart, the medical director at the DOC’s Eyman facility in Florence, faced questions during the hearing concerning Dr. Watson’s allegations and confirmed there were delays in Corizon’s treatment of prisoners with chronic care conditions. He cited a shortage of physicians at the prison and also criticized Dr. Watson’s performance, saying she was rude and spent too much time with patients.

The case remains pending. See: Parsons v. Ryan, U.S.D.C. (D. Ariz.), Case No. 2:12-cv-00601-DKD. 

Sources:,,, www.abcnews,,


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Related legal case

Parsons v. Ryan