Judge Orders Probe of California Prison Mental Health Programs
On Thursday, a federal judge ordered an investigation of prison-based mental health care facilities managed by the California Department of State Hospitals, the Los Angeles Times reports (Romney/St. John, Los Angeles Times, 7/12).
Background on Prison Health Issues
In 2006, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ruled that federal oversight of the prison system was needed after determining that an average of one inmate per week died as a result of medical malpractice or neglect.
In April, a panel of federal judges rejected Gov. Jerry Brown's (D) request to end a court-mandated prison population cap. The judges ruled that the cap is necessary to address substandard conditions that have resulted in unconstitutionally poor inmate care.
On May 2, Brown filed a proposal to comply with the population cap.
In June, three federal judges rejected the plan, ordering Brown to release about 9,600 inmates -- or 8% of the inmate population -- by 2014.
Shortly after the June ruling, the Brown administration requested a stay of the order until the Supreme Court rules on the case. However, the federal judges denied Brown's request to delay the order.
On Wednesday, Brown filed a request with Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy for a stay of the order (California Healthline, 7/11).
Inmates' Attorneys Call for More Oversight of Prison Mental Care
Last month, lawyers representing California state inmates asked U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton to expand oversight of the state's prison mental health care system to include DSH.
At a hearing, attorneys discussed the deaths of two Salinas Valley State Prison inmates who had histories of trying to harm themselves. One of the prisoners hanged himself and left behind a written message saying that his feelings of depression had worsened at the facility.
Prisoner advocates and an expert witness argued that the deaths show that mental health treatment has not sufficiently improved in the facilities under federal oversight (California Healthline, 6/20).
Details of Karlton's Order
In his order for a probe of DSH-operated prison mental health facilities, Karlton cited evidence of:
- Doctor shortages;
- Treatment delays; and
- The "denial of basic necessities, including clean underwear."
Karlton said that an investigation of the Salinas Valley facility must be completed within 75 days, while separate investigations of psychiatric programs in Vacaville and Stockton must be finished by March 2014.
The ruling primarily applies to prison-based programs, which currently house a total of 761 patients. However, head investigators also are expected to examine conditions at state hospitals in Atascadero, Coalinga and Patton, where 238 mentally ill prisoners currently are being treated.
State mental health officials said certain delays in care were "reasonably related" to prison safety issues and that charges of unsanitary conditions are false.
They added that care at the Salinas Valley facility has not been compromised by psychiatrist retention problems and that the Vacaville psychiatric program is adequately staffed.
Lawyers representing DSH said that Karlton's order would "unnecessarily expand judicial oversight" (Los Angeles Times, 7/12).
Senate Confirms New Prison Secretary
In related news, the state Senate on Thursday confirmed Jeffrey Beard as DOC Secretary by a 23-6 vote. State Senate Public Safety Committee Chair Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) said that she supported Beard's appointment based on his nine years of experience leading Pennsylvania's corrections system.
However, Republicans objected to the appointment.
Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) said Beard will be charged with carrying out a prison population reduction order that "continues the darkness of risk to our families" ("KPCC News," AP/KPCC, 7/11).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.