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Federal Judge: Actions Of Arizona Department Of Corrections Director Undermine The Judiciary

Arizona Department of Corrections building
Arizona Department of Corrections
Arizona Department of Corrections building in Phoenix.

A federal judge chastised the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections on Tuesday for challenging his authority. Director Ryan is the defendant in an ongoing settlement over access to prison health care.

Judge David Duncan began the evidentiary hearing with a long, scathing rebuke of Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan "saying the director's actions were an "assault against the rule of law."

After prisoners alleged the state retaliated against them for testifying to poor health care conditions, Duncan ordered the department to stop.

In an email to his staff, director Ryan called the order unfortunate and challenged its legitimacy. Duncan said the director’s language undermined the judiciary. He likened the behavior to former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was recently found guilty of willfully violating a federal judge’s order.

"You and I are in the same business," Duncan said, addressing Ryan. "We are focused on preserving a society where the rule of law prevails. If one disagrees with the law, there is the to right appeal or to change the law, but not to undermine the legitimacy of the judiciary in pronouncing the law."

Duncan said the email could be viewed by staff as a "wink and a nod" from the director, ordering compliance on one hand while questioning the validity of the order on the other.

"Imagine how you would feel," Duncan said, "if you directed your wardens to take a specific action, but in communicating that message your wardens also said to their staff that 'the director's order is preconceived, not based on the full story, and you all are doing a great job.'"

Ryan testified that was not his intention and that the department was following the order to the letter.

Ryan said he held a video teleconference instructing all administrators and executive staff to comply with the order.

However, attorneys for the plaintiffs say clients who previously testified face continued retaliation. Inmates say before they testify they are "rolled up" which means their possessions are taken from them to be inventoried. Other inmates have claimed they were moved to different cells after testifying in court. Ryan said if true, the allegations were concerning.

Ryan told the judge he thought he was attempting to micromanage the prisons. Judge Duncan told the director he was forced to do so because of the department's failure to comply with multiple stipulations in the Parsons v. Ryan settlement.

"Get me out of this business," Duncan pleaded with Ryan. Duncan said "the simple pathway" is to meet the performance measures.

"I want you out of this case just as bad as anybody else," Director Ryan joked.

Jimmy Jenkins is a senior field correspondent at KJZZ and a contributor to NPR’s Election 2020 and Criminal Justice station collaborations. His work has been featured on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Takeaway and NPR Newscasts.Originally from Terre Haute, Indiana, Jenkins has a B.S. in criminology from Indiana State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University.Much of his reporting has focused on the criminal justice system. Jenkins has reported on Tasers, body cameras, use of force, jail privatization, prison health care and the criminal contempt trial of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.