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Judge in prison health care lawsuit scolds corrections director in court

Compares Ryan's actions to Arpaio lawlessness

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Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan was compared to former Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio and admonished in federal court Tuesday for an email sent to his staff challenging a judge’s order.

Before Ryan even took the stand to testify after being ordered to do so, U.S. Magistrate Judge David Duncan directly addressed him and his comments to DOC staff.

“You and I are in the same business,” Duncan told Ryan in court. “Thus, I would think this would be something that you of all people would understand as you supervise tens of thousands of people who have not followed the law.”

Ryan was specifically called to testify about an email he sent to DOC staff in which he questioned Duncan’s order to end alleged retaliation of prisoners who testified about abysmal health care in the state’s prisons. DOC is in court over non-compliance with a lawsuit settlement meant to improve its health care to thousands of prisoners.

Duncan said prominent public servants like Ryan are in a position to influence “whether we live in a society where there is respect for the law, even laws with which you disagree.” But, referring to a judge’s order as “preconceived” or acting like “the recently convicted sheriff in our county, who thought that he could do as he wished notwithstanding contrary orders of the court,” is disrespectful to the rule of law, Duncan said.

“I worry that it sends a message that we only follow the laws we think are right or that we can choose whether we wish to do what is necessary to follow the law,” Duncan said. “This case is fundamentally about the failure of the Department of Corrections to follow the law of this case. For years, your promise to provide the health care required by the stipulations has failed. This promise has not been met.”

And because the department has not met its obligations as agreed to when the Parsons v. Ryan case was settled in 2014, Duncan has had to intervene.

“With all due respect,” Ryan told the judge, “I want you out of this case as bad as anybody else.”

It’s not an ideal situation, Duncan conceded, but one he believes is necessary at this point as prisoners continue to raise concerns with the level of health care provided as well as retaliation for raising such issues.

Duncan noted he visited a DOC facility to see the health care troubles for himself, a trip that “destroyed” his hearing aide when he sweated so profusely while sitting in the prisoners’ health clinic.

As for the claims of retaliation, Duncan has issued an order to DOC to cease any retaliatory actions against prisoners who provide written or oral testimony. That order sparked Ryan’s frustrated email to staff and ultimately led the director to testimony defending his own words.

Daniel Struck, an attorney for DOC, told Duncan the order was “an affront to the director to be told that his 9,500 employees are retaliating against the inmates in their charge.”

But Duncan cast that argument for Ryan’s email aside, calling it “hyperbolic” and “not helpful,” an explanation that he did not believe would make sense to anyone considering he did not suggest all DOC employees had engaged in retaliation against the prisoners participating in the Parsons case.

Speaking for himself, Ryan said the email – which he did not consider disrespectful to the court – was crafted with the assistance of his counsel and was not intended to suggest his staff should do anything but comply with Duncan’s order fully.

Additionally, Ryan said the video conference referenced in his email took place on Aug. 1. The first ten minutes of that 90-minute meeting consisted of Ryan, by his own account, reading his email aloud to the attendees and asking for questions, of which there were none.

That video conference was not documented, however. Ryan said the department did not have the technology to record the meeting that included about 100 people nor was he aware of any notes taken during or to prepare for his remarks.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Corene Kendrick of the Prison Law Office told the Arizona Capitol Times that Ryan’s statements did not inspire great confidence that Duncan’s order was truly conveyed to DOC staff. To her, it sounded as if Ryan did nothing more than reiterate disrespectful comments.

And without any documentation, she cannot be sure the message got through.

“I find it a little shocking that the state’s largest agency with a $1 billion budget can have a teleconference with over 100 people yet nobody takes notes and nobody asks questions,” she said. “That just doesn’t seem logical.”

Kendrick’s co-counsel Donald Specter also questioned why Ryan took issue with the judge’s order if it was consistent with DOC’s own policies warning against retaliation or actions taken against prisoners without cause.

Ryan testified that prisoners are not sent to his facilities to be subjected to harassment or face further punishment, and he said DOC has written policies against retaliation.

Specter said those policies could not be found in DOC’s public documents.  

In a lengthy email to the Arizona Capitol Times following Ryan’s testimony, DOC spokesman Andrew WIlder included several passages from the department’s employee handbook, non-discrimination policy and code of ethics with language on retaliation among other abuses of power.

According to Wilder’s email, the employee handbook states, “The Department prohibits retaliation against anyone for raising a concern about, assisting in an investigation of, or filing a complaint concerning unlawful discrimination or unlawful harassment.”

Ryan said if prisoners raise concerns over retaliation, those claims are investigated, and officers involved are disciplined if the claims prove to be true.

However, he also testified that he did not seek out further information regarding the claims of abuse raised after prisoners testified in Duncan’s court on July 14.

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