SACRAMENTO (AP) — A federal judge on Tuesday outlined a plan for California to end nearly a decade of federal control over its prison health care system.
U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco acted after a court-appointed overseer reported that conditions have substantially improved since Henderson appointed a receiver to run the medical system in 2006.
Each of the state’s 34 prisons must pass an inspection before they can be returned to state control, Henderson said. The inspections are underway and are expected to take more than a year.
The state has spent $2 billion for new prison medical facilities, doubled its annual prison health care budget to nearly $1.7 billion and reduced its prison population by more than 40,000 inmates in the last decade to address what Henderson said were conditions so poor that they violated inmates’ constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment.
However, some prisons lag far behind others and more work still needs to be done system-wide, receiver J. Clark Kelso reported.
The transition back to state control hinges on medical inspections of those prisons by the inspector general of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Prisons that pass muster could be returned to state control, Henderson said. If conditions at a prison decline, the receiver could retake control, but Henderson said the receiver is expected to eventually take on “more of a monitoring function.”
If the state keeps control of all the prisons for a year, Henderson said he will presume that health care meets constitutional standards and that he should consider ending the receivership.
“It sets a pathway for moving forward,” Kelso said in a telephone interview. “I think the expectation is that quite a few of them will be found to be providing adequate care and then we’ll begin delegating back to the state authority for those institutions.” That will allow his office to concentrate on bringing the poorly performing prisons up to standard, he said.
Henderson found in 2005 that conditions were so poor that an average of an inmate each week was dying of medical malpractice or neglect.
“The number of definitely or likely preventable deaths has decreased dramatically under the Receivership,” he wrote in his seven-page order. However, he noted that “critical areas of improvement remain.”
By now, the prison system has competent medical staff leading health care, processes to make sure inmates get care, and a system to spot problems if they don’t, Kelso said in his 68-page report.
Remaining problem areas include doing a better job keeping medical records, scheduling appointments, treating more inmates without sending them to outside hospitals, and upgrading treatment areas that Kelso said are “still grossly insufficient.” Construction of 31 prison health care projects and a new electronic medical records system are scheduled for completion no earlier than 2017.
Don Specter, director of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office and one of the attorneys who sued over poor conditions, called Henderson’s order “a well thought-out, elegant transition plan.”
“I agree with Kelso that there are still significant issues, both systemic and individual institutions, which have to be corrected before the receivership should end,” Specter said.
This is second time that federal authorities tried to begin transferring control to California.
Kelso shifted two duties in October 2012, telling The Associated Press at that time that California could take over the entire system in about a year if all went well.
Less than three months after Kelso’s earlier attempt, Gov. Jerry Brown abruptly announced in January 2013 that he would contest further federal oversight of inmate medical and mental health care. The state lost those court battles.
“I look forward to the state resuming full control of our prison health care system,” Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said in a statement on behalf of the administration.