Federal Court Moves To Place State Prison Health Care System Under Receivership
The federal judge presiding over a 2002 court order requiring California to provide adequate prison health care by 2008 on Tuesday took the first step in placing the state prison system in a receivership, a step that would transfer full power to direct prison health policy to an outside authority, the Sacramento Bee reports. U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson said the prison health care system had contributed to the deaths of "a significant number of prisoners" and would contribute to more deaths without substantial changes (Cooper, Sacramento Bee, 5/11).
A court-appointed panel of medical experts last month reported multiple instances of incompetence, indifference, cruelty and neglect by San Quentin State Prison's health care system. The panel found that overall compliance with the court order was "nonexistent."
The examiners also found extensive inadequacies at Salinas Valley State Prison and the California State Prison at Sacramento. However, they did note some improvements at the two facilities (California Healthline, 4/15).
Henderson said in his court filing that he personally toured San Quentin and found conditions "horrifying" (Gladstone, San Jose Mercury News, 5/11).
Henderson said that the state's plans to contract out prison health care management would take at least 18 months to implement and that there was no time estimate for improvements to the standards of care (Sacramento Bee, 5/11).
Henderson set two weeks of court hearings in San Francisco starting May 31. The Department of Corrections will have an opportunity to offer any reasons why a federal official should not be named to temporarily manage the system (San Jose Mercury News, 5/11).
Henderson requested Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's (R) administration to appear at a hearing on July 11 to present arguments against the plan (Morian/Warren, Los Angeles Times, 5/11).
If the court appoints a receiver, the state could suggest candidates, but Henderson ultimately would make the decision.
The receiver would report to the court and would have "broad powers to overcome any bureaucratic obstacles and order changes in the prison health care system, no matter what it cost the state," the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Sterngold, San Francisco Chronicle, 5/11).
"The problem of a highly dysfunctional, largely decrepit, overly bureaucratic and politically driven system, which these defendants have inherited from past administrations, is too far gone to be corrected by conventional methods," Henderson wrote in his court order.
Henderson added that "when prisoners are dying due to the neglect or incompetence of doctors and other medical staff employed by the state ... there can be no doubt but that the Constitution is being violated" (Los Angeles Times, 5/11).
"Defendants themselves have conceded that a significant number of prisoners have died as a direct result of this lack of care, and it is clear to the court that more are sure to suffer and die if the system is not immediately overhauled," Henderson wrote (San Francisco Chronicle, 5/11).
J.P. Tremblay, spokesperson for Department of Corrections, said, "We acknowledge that there are some issues that we need to deal with, and we are trying." He added that the need for a receiver was "the decision of the court."
Donald Specter -- an attorney for the Prison Law Office, which brought the lawsuit -- said, "There is no other effective alternative. The state ... is utterly and completely incapable of taking the steps necessary" to improve the prison health care system (Los Angeles Times, 5/11).
Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) said, "I believe drastic measures are necessary. The appointment of a federal receiver will give inmate health care the attention it deserves" (San Jose Mercury News, 5/11).
Schwarzenegger on Tuesday held a bill signing ceremony in front of San Quentin Prison for legislation (SB 737) that will create a division of correctional health care services under a reorganized Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (Sacramento Bee, 5/11).
The reorganization centralizes control of the state's prison system under the department secretary. The measure does not address the problems noted in Henderson's order (San Francisco Chronicle, 5/11).