PHOENIX — A judge presiding in a settlement over the quality of health care in Arizona's prisons has appointed an expert to examine the method for determining whether the state is making the changes it promised to make to inmate care.
Dr. Marc Stern, who has served as an expert in similar inmate-care lawsuits across the country, was appointed Thursday by U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver. Three weeks ago, the judge said in an order that evidence has shown the Department of Corrections had manipulated the process for monitoring compliance with the 2014 settlement.
The hearing on Thursday was the first held 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 promised improvements.
Silver, who has raised the possibility of throwing out the settlement because of the state's pervasive noncompliance, said hiring an expert was a more attractive option than conducting a trial.
If a constitutional violation were found at trial, the judge said she could consider a number of remedies, such as appointing a special master who, on behalf of the court, would oversee improvements to inmate care.
Silver said she doesn't want to run the health care operations of the prisons. "The alternative of going to trial is terrible," Silver said.
Donald Specter, one of the lawyers representing the prisoners, agreed to appoint Stern, but added that he doesn't believe appointing another expert will ensure a constitutionally adequate health care system for inmates.
Daniel Struck, one of the lawyers representing the state, objected to Stern's appointment, saying the expert in past cases appears to have a bias in favor of prisoners.
A 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 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 in October 2014 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.
Gov. Doug Ducey, who is Ryan's boss, 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.
Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud.