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Arizona officials threatened with contempt over prison care

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A judge has warned that Arizona Corrections Director Charles Ryan and another prison official could be held in civil contempt of court and the state could face fines for repeatedly falling short in improving health care for inmates.

The order Oct. 10 by U.S. Magistrate David Duncan comes as the judge and attorneys for prisoners have complained that Arizona prison officials were dragging their feet in making the improvements they promised three years ago when settling a class-action lawsuit that alleged inmates were getting shoddy health care.

Duncan said prison officials will be required early next year to file a list of every instance during December 2017 in which it was unable to comply with the changes. He threatened a $1,000 fine for each instance of noncompliance in December.

The magistrate also said he will impose civil contempt sanctions against Ryan and Assistant Corrections Director Richard Pratt, who oversees health care for prisoners, if there is convincing evidence that they haven’t taken reasonable steps to make the improvements.

The areas in which Duncan is requiring improvements include ensuring that newly prescribed medications be provided to inmates within two days and making medical providers tell inmates about the results of diagnostic studies, such as pathology reports, within five days of receiving such records.

Although the Department of Corrections hasn’t yet been fined, Duncan raised the possibility of such penalties earlier this summer. The possible fines for June alone have been estimated at $2.1 million.

The Department of Corrections issued a statement saying it has already taken action to encourage its medical provider to meet the performance measures it agreed to when settling the case.

At a hearing this summer in the prison case, Duncan described the state’s efforts to overhaul health care for inmates as an “abject failure.”

The 2012 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 they were told to pray to be cured after begging for treatment.

The state denied the allegations that they were providing shoddy health care for prisoners.

The lawsuit was settled in 2014 on behalf of more than 30,000 Arizona inmates, without the state acknowledging any wrongdoing.

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