Judge Indicates Support for Federal Receiver of California’s Prison Medical System
Senior U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson on Tuesday "hinted that he is at least sympathetic to the idea" of appointing a federal receiver who would oversee the state prison health care system, the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Sterngold, San Francisco Chronicle, 6/1).
"I can see myself appointing a receiver to stop 60-some people a year from dying," Henderson said on Tuesday in response to expert testimony from correctional health care authority Michael Puisis that poor health care is causing "probably one to two preventable deaths per site per year" at the state's 32 penal institutions (Cooper, Sacramento Bee, 6/1).
Henderson in May took the first step in placing the state prison system in a receivership after a court-appointed panel of medical experts reported multiple instances of incompetence, indifference, cruelty and neglect by San Quentin State Prison's health care system. Henderson said in his court filing that he personally toured San Quentin and found conditions "horrifying." Granting a receivership would transfer full power to direct prison health policy to an outside authority (California Healthline, 5/11).
If Henderson names a federal overseer, the official would "have the power to hire and fire and manage" the state prison health care system, the Contra Costa Times reports (Gladstone, Contra Costa Times, 6/1).
Puisis said that 150 prison physicians are needed on staff and that one-fourth to half of those currently working in the state prison health care system should be replaced (Sacramento Bee, 6/1).
"It is almost anarchy at individual sites in which the doctors at the individual sites do what they want," Puisis said of the lack of supervision in the system.
Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, recommended that the court issue an emergency order to give control of the system to a temporary receiver until a permanent receiver could be appointed.
Bruce Slavin, general counsel for the Department of Corrections, said, "We will fight it very vigorously," adding, "That strikes a different note" than a long-term receiver whose powers would be limited (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/1).
Todd Slosek, a corrections department spokesperson, said his agency's position "is that every death should be reviewed." He could not immediately say whether each prison death is scrutinized. However, Slosek said 34 deaths cited by court experts as likely being preventable are being reviewed by other experts at the University of California-San Diego. Of the 12 that have been examined, three appeared to be preventable, he said (Contra Costa Times, 6/1).
State prison health care administrators are scheduled to testify next week. Henderson has scheduled a timetable for written arguments to be heard through July 6. His final ruling could follow within a few weeks.
Henderson did not indicate when he might rule on the motion for an emergency order that the Prison Law Office said it planned to offer on Wednesday (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/1).