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Ninth Circuit Issues Ruling on Arizona DOC Stipulated Settlement

by David M. Reutter

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held on December 20, 2018 that a stipulated settlement in a conditions of confinement suit against the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADOC) allowed the district court to issue an order requiring the ADOC to develop and implement a plan to increase staffing levels in general. An order to use “all available community health care services” to ensure prisoners receive timely medical care also was found to be within the district court’s authority, but expanding a subclass to include close custody prisoners was not.

As previously reported in PLN, the ADOC agreed to a stipulation that required it to comply with 103 “performance measures” designed to improve the health care system in Arizona state prisons and reduce the harmful effects of solitary confinement. [See: PLN, May 2018, p.28; Feb. 2016, p.56]. Since the settlement, the district court has had to issue several orders to enforce the agreement. Its latest orders were the subject of this appeal.

The first issue addressed by the Ninth Circuit concerned the stipulation’s provision that “the Court shall not have the authority to order Defendants to ... hire a specific number or type of staff unless Defendants propose to do so as part of a plan to remedy a failure to comply with” the settlement terms. The ADOC argued this precluded the district court from ordering it to develop a plan to increase staffing levels.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed. An order that requires the defendants to “develop and implement a plan to increase staffing in general ... would not, without more, violate the Stipulation because Defendants would retain discretion over the specific number and type of personnel to hire pursuant to such an order.”

The ADOC also argued that the district court’s order requiring it to “use all available community healthcare services” to ensure compliance with certain performance measures was an abuse of discretion and changed the 80 percent substantial compliance benchmark. Again, the Court of Appeals disagreed.

The Court noted that prior to entry of the order at issue, the ADOC was given several chances to come into substantial compliance, but the data indicated “a serious failure to be even close on a number of the performance measures.” The order did not move the threshold for substantial compliance; rather, it required the ADOC to use outside providers if it could not provide timely treatment to prisoners. The order did not, as the ADOC contended, create an “unprecedented” security risk because prison officials could bring the outside providers into the prisons rather than transport prisoners to their locations, or they could make “greater use of information technology to provide clinical care remotely.” Plus there was an alternative the ADOC had implemented, using an open clinic. 

Therefore, the district court’s order regarding compliance with performance benchmarks was affirmed.

However, an order holding that close custody prisoners fell into a subclass of prisoners at specified maximum-security facilities was reversed. That subclass was defined as including prisoners subject to isolation “for 22 hours or more each day.” The close custody prisoners were offered at least 15.5 hours of out-of-cell time per week. A dissent by Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Sidney Thomas noted the prisoners were afforded visits, were able to pick up purchases at the commissary, and received reentry, substance abuse and cognitive behavior programs. 

While many of the prisoners may not have been able to actually leave their cells for those purposes, the Court of Appeals found the offerings alone were sufficient to exclude close custody prisoners from the subclass. 

Accordingly, the appellate court concluded “the district court may, in the future, consider ordering Defendants to develop and implement a plan to increase staffing in general as a remedy for Defendants’ non-compliance. In addition, offering close custody inmates 15.5 hours or more out-of-cell time per week is sufficient to place these inmates outside of the subclass for purposes of monitoring compliance with the Stipulation.” See: Parsons v. Ryan, 912 F.3d 486 (9th Cir. 2018), rehearing and rehearing en banc denied. 

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Related legal case

Parsons v. Ryan