Prison health care improvements noted

By OPEC Staff

Six years after appointing a federal receiver to oversee the California’s prison health-care system, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson has said the oversight soon can end. 

“While some critical work remains outstanding – most notably on construction issues – it is clear that many of the goals of the receivership have been accomplished,” Henderson wrote last week.

“We have been working very hard to clean up the mess in the prisons,” Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. said, “and I appreciate the judicial recognition of our efforts.”

Matthew Cate, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, hailed Henderson’s statements.

“The Department is ready and willing to start planning for the end of federal oversight of prison medical care,” Cate said in a statement.

In 2006, Henderson found that medical care in the state’s prisons was so poor that an average of one inmate a week died as a result of malpractice or neglect – violating the inmates’ constitutional rights. He appointed a federal receiver to oversee the prison health care system.

Unhappy with the progress, Henderson fired the first receiver and appointed J. Clark Kelso.
The state sought in 2009 to end the receivership, but Henderson rebuffed the effort, saying he had no confidence that improvements would continue or be sustained if the oversight ended.
Since the establishment of the receivership, the state has built medical facilities at several institutions, including a 1,722-bed under construction in Stockton. It also has more than doubled health-care spending to approximately $15,000 annually per inmate.

The judge has directed state officials, Receiver J. Clark Kelso and officials from the Prison Law Office — the inmate advocacy group that filed the suit against the state — to outline how to proceed. They also will decide how progress will be monitored and measured.

Henderson ordered the group to report on when the receivership should end, or if it should retain some oversight responsibility.  In his order, the judge noted that the end of receivership won’t mean the end of monitoring. He anticipated a “period of oversight” to make sure CDCR can “sustain the progress that has been and will be achieved.” Henderson told the group to report back by April 30.

Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, said in court documents that progress had been made in the prisons but that more improvements are needed, including the construction of prison clinics and hospitals. He added that he was concerned about the state “backsliding, especially in times when money is tight.”

In 2007, federal judges ruled that overcrowding was a leading contributor to poor prison care. Last May, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed an order that California reduce its inmate population to help improve medical care.

As part of the effort to reduce the inmate population, the Legislature passed Assembly Bill 109, the 2011 Public Safety Realignment, which shifted responsibility of lower-level offenders from the state to counties. Since its implementation October 1, 2010, the population of California’s 33 adult institutions has declined by more than 13,000 inmates. The state has met the court’s first prison population target and is on course to meet the one-year target in June.