Judge Says Ethical Issues Possible in Prison Health Care Oversight Case
During a Wednesday hearing examining whether to end federal oversight of California's prison health care system, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton said that actions by state officials to build support for their case could be viewed as a "profound ethical violation," the Sacramento Bee reports (Walsh, Sacramento Bee, 3/27).
About six years ago, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ruled that federal oversight of the state's prison health care system was neededÂ after determining that an average of one inmate per week died as a result of malpractice or neglect.
In January, Brown's administration filed a request for a federal court to allow the state to regain oversight of the prison system.
The request stated that California has reduced its inmate population and improved prison medical and mental health care.
However, a report issued in January by Special Master Matthew Lopes said Brown's request to end federal oversight of the state prison system was premature.
Lopes cited several reasons for the need for continued federal oversight, including that:
- At least 32 inmates committed suicide in 2012;
- Prisons had various lapses in care; and
- Patients with mental illnesses sometimes were put in isolation units for long periods rather than given treatment.
Lawyers for the state argue that California prisons now provide a constitutional level of mental health care for prison inmates.
In a recent court filing, they wrote, "California has invested tremendous amounts of money, resources and effort to transform its prison mental health care system into one of the best in the country."
Inmates' attorneys argue that the state has not done enough to improve prison mental health care services and that more mental health facilities must be built and staffed. They also say that state officials must do more to reduce inmate suicide rates (California Healthline, 3/27).
Debate Over Tours,Â Prisoner Interviews
At the hearing, Karlton discussed a series of prison tours and interviews that state officials allegedly organized without notifying inmates' lawyers.
The judge said that the possible transgression by state officials is "a very serious matter."
Following the hearing, Don Specter -- head of the Prison Law Office -- said that the state "interviewed our mentally ill clients without our knowledge about the case, and then they used the evidence" to support claims that conditions in the prisons have improved.
Specter added, "They didn't really explain to the mentally ill clients what the purpose of the interviews were, so the inmates had no idea who they were speaking to, they had no idea for the reason."
However, Jeffrey Beard -- the newly appointed secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation -- said that state officials made no attempt to hide the prison tours and interviews from inmates' lawyers (Sacramento Bee, 3/27).
Karlton said that the issue might compel him to strike the state's expert testimony and dismiss its motion to end federal oversight of the prison health care system (Small, "KPCC News," KPCC, 3/27).
However, he acknowledged that the state has made significant progress in reforming the overcrowded conditions in prisons that had compromised health care services.
Beard said that he is optimistic that Karlton will allow the state's expert testimony to stand (Sacramento Bee, 3/27).
The judge must rule on the case by April 7 (Onishi, New York Times, 3/27).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.