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2:10 PM Tue, Dec. 11th

Judge to hold hearing in suit over inmate care in Arizona

PHOENIX — A judge presiding in a settlement over the quality of health care in Arizona's prisons will hold a hearing Thursday after previously raising the possibility of throwing out the agreement over what she said was the state's pervasive noncompliance with the deal.

The agenda for Thursday's status hearing is unknown. But it will mark the first hearing in the case since Corrections Director Charles Ryan was held in civil contempt of court nearly six months ago for failing to make many of the improvements to inmate care that the state promised when settling a class-action lawsuit.

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, and the lawsuit was settled without the state acknowledging any wrongdoing.

The state has followed through on some promises. But when finding Ryan in contempt in mid-June, the court said the state hadn't been fully compliant on other provisions, such as making a provider relay the results of medical diagnostic studies, including pathology reports, to inmates within seven days after requesting it.

Three weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver raised the possibility of throwing out the agreement and resuming litigation, saying the state's insistence on defending its noncompliance was ill-advised.

Lawyers representing the state haven't yet said whether they wish to continue with the settlement or resume litigating the case.

This will be the first hearing in the case for Silver, who started presiding over the settlement after U.S. Magistrate Judge David Duncan, who presided over the case for several years and complained about the state dragging its feet in complying with the settlement, retired from the bench this summer for health reasons.

Just before he retired, Duncan found Ryan to be in contempt and fined the state $1.4 million for failing to make the promised improvements. The state paid the fine and was later reimbursed by the private company that provides health care in Arizona's prisons.

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 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 June 2017 in enforcing the 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.