Back in August, without naming names, Judge David K. Duncan compared Arizona Department of Corrections director Charles Ryan to Joe Arpaio — or, in Duncan's phraseology, "the recently convicted Sheriff in our county who thought he could do as he wished."
Now, Ryan has another thing in common with Arpaio: He's being threatened with civil contempt of court, the same thing that Judge G. Murray Snow found Arpaio to be guilty of last year. (This summer's conviction was for criminal contempt charges.)
The potential charges are a result of what Duncan described as "pervasive and intractable failures" to meet the standards for prisoner health care laid out in the Parsons v. Ryan settlement agreement — which is turning three years old this week.
In an order issued Tuesday, Duncan wrote that he was putting Ryan and assistant director Richard Pratt "on notice."
In addition to the contempt charges, he noted, the Department of Corrections is also potentially looking at a $1,000 fine each time it fails to comply with the stipulation during the month of December.
Spokesman Andrew Wilder wrote in a statement that the Department of Corrections "remains firmly committed to holding its current contracted health care provider, Corizon, accountable for its contractual responsibility to provide inmates the constitutionally-mandated health care to which they are entitled."
He added, "ADC already has taken significant and concrete actions to encourage Corizon to meet the specific performance measures under the Parsons stipulation."
However, it’s become increasingly clear that Duncan is fed up with the lack of meaningful progress.
In September, he commented that he was losing confidence in the Department of Corrections, which he compared to a diseased tree.
“It’s not as if I’ve just cherry-picked and said 'Oh, this is this a bad apple,'” he said in court, according to KJZZ. “It’s looking at the tree as diseased.”
ADC's problems appear to be systemic, he added, continuing with the metaphor. "You almost think the tree needs to be cut down and a new one planted.”
Meanwhile, people in Arizona prisons are literally dying, as Corene Kendrick of the Prison Law Office points out.
"This spring, four people committed suicide in three weeks, and our mental health expert’s report indicated the suicides were tied to inadequate or nonexistent mental health care," she wrote in an email to Phoenix New Times.
Kendrick says that her office also gets dozens of letters each week from Arizona prisoners who have serious medical conditions such as cancer, Hepatitis C, or diabetes, and are facing long delays in their treatment.
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"When ADC announces the deaths of people in their custody on their website, they are often persons who had previously contacted my office for help," she wrote.
She added, "Courts do not enter a notice of contempt order lightly; under the law, contempt is a remedy of last resort."
Hopefully, she says, the judge's order will be a wake-up call for the Department of Corrections, as well as for Governor Doug Ducey.
"Arizona’s correctional health care system is profoundly broken, and it is past time for comprehensive reform."