SACRAMENTO . (AP) — It's too soon for California to retake control of its prison mental health system, a federal court overseer said Friday in dealing a blow to a proposal made by Gov. Jerry Brown last week.
Too many inmates are still committing suicide and going untreated for their mental illness in California prisons, special master Matthew Lopes said in a 609-page report filed Friday in federal court in Sacramento.
Lopes advises the federal judges who will rule on Brown's court motion last week to end the long-running class-action lawsuit over substandard treatment in prisons. The Democratic governor is also asking federal judges to lift a cap on the number of inmates, saying it would be too dangerous to release more prisoners.
"At this time, any attempt at a more abrupt conclusion to court oversight would be, in the opinion of the special master, not only premature but a needless distraction from the important work that is being done in the quality improvement project," Lopes concluded.
Despite years of efforts, the state still has too few mental health staff and beds, inmates can wait weeks before they receive mental health treatment, and inmates are dying by suicide at the rate of one every 11 days, he wrote.
There were 32 inmate suicides last year, a rate that substantially exceeds the national average for state prisons, he said, yet suicide prevention measures agreed to two years ago appear not to have been fully implemented.
He credited the state with making "significant progress" in meeting seven goals set last year by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton, and said officials seem to have made a "serious commitment" to making the necessary improvements.
However, "more work remains to be done before all of these goals are met," he wrote.
Lopes wrote the report before Brown's announcement last week, though the administration had signaled by then that it intended to soon ask Karlton to end federal oversight of the prison system's mental health programs.
Brown's court filing triggered a 90-day clock for the judge to rule if prison conditions now meet constitutional standards.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will file a formal response after reviewing the report, said spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman.
She said the department disputes the special master's finding that there are delays in providing mental health treatment to any inmate who needs it.
"We take suicides very seriously and have one of the most robust suicide prevention programs in the nation," she said in an email. "California's prison suicide rate is half that of local jails, lower than many other state prison systems, and in fact, lower than the suicide rate of adult males outside of prison."
Michael Bien, the lead attorney representing the welfare of mentally ill inmates, said the special master's filing shows that the federal judges should reject Brown's motion to end federal oversight.
"These problems are serious, they're well known to the defendants, the solution is well known, what they need to do is well known, and they've failed to do it," he said. "That is a constitutional violation. ... Years and years later, the problems exist and people are dying unnecessarily."
That means the federal courts should also reject Brown's motion to lift the inmate population cap, Bien said. Karlton and two federal judges had ruled in 2009 that reducing crowding was the only way to improve unconstitutionally poor treatment of physically and mentally ill inmates, a decision upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011.
The state said in a court filing earlier this week that it had missed December's court-ordered benchmark for reducing the population, and will miss the final deadline in June despite sending thousands of less-serious offenders to local jails instead of state prisons under a 14-month-old state law.
The state is supposed to reduce the population of its 33 adult prisons to a total of 110,000 inmates by June, but is on track to exceed that limit by about 10,000 inmates.
Brown argued that the state already has brought conditions up to constitutional standards and should not be forced to further reduce the inmate population.