Prison Health Care System Placed in Federal Receivership by U.S. Judge
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, citing conditions of "outright depravity" in the California prison health care system, on Thursday ordered that a federal receiver take control of and rectify the system, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Henderson said he might appoint a temporary receiver within weeks to limit ongoing harm to inmates (Sterngold, San Francisco Chronicle, 7/1).
Henderson said he will soon issue a written order outlining details of the receivership, adding that he will begin discussing potential receivers with lawyers in the case. The receiver will report directly to Henderson and will "be empowered" to order fixes that have been delayed by Civil Service rules, collective bargaining agreements and bureaucratic "red tape," the Los Angeles Times reports (Warren, Los Angeles Times, 7/1).
Henderson indicated that the receiver will probably have the ability to fire incompetent doctors and hire to fill vacancies that have been open for years (San Francisco Chronicle, 7/1).
The receivership "effectively shifts power for all decisions related to inmate care" to the federal court, the Times reports. Henderson said the receivership would be a "multiyear effort."
Attorneys for both sides said no government agency as large as the prison health care system had ever been placed under federal receivership. The system serves more than 163,000 prisoners, employs 6,000 workers and has an annual budget of $1.1 billion.
Henderson said that his court had repeatedly warned the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to address problems with the prison health care system, but prisoners continued to die "for no acceptable reason." Henderson said that "nothing short of a receiver" would prevent more deaths and other harm.
Henderson said he was particularly motivated by an "uncontested statistic," provided by a court-appointed expert, "that a prisoner needlessly dies an average of roughly once a week" (Los Angeles Times, 7/1).
"Close observers" of the department said short-term fixes "will probably end up costing at least $100 million a year," the Sacramento Bee reports. Such fixes include hiring qualified physicians, nurses, pharmacists and top-level managers and installing a computerized medical records system.
Greg Jolivette, a prison-spending expert for the state Legislative Analyst's Office, said the cost "depends on what the (receiver) sees as the top priorities, and there is no way to know the costs until you know the specific remedies the court would seek."
Gary Robinson, executive director of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, said the receiver would have to raise the average prison doctor's salary, which is currently $134,000 annually, in order to attract more doctors.
Reducing vacancy rates for doctors and other workers in the system and also increasing the quality of the staff would cost about $20 million annually, according to Richard Steffen, a staff member for Sen. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) and an expert on prison health care.
The computerized medical records system would cost about $90 million over two years, according to legislative estimates (Furillo, Sacramento Bee, 7/1).
Donald Specter -- head of the Prison Law Office, the prisoner rights group that filed the lawsuit on which Henderson was acting -- said, "It's certainly everything we asked for" (San Francisco Chronicle, 7/1).
California Youth and Adult Corrections Secretary Roderick Hickman said the receivership is "a sustainable solution." Hickman said, "The taxpayers of this state can't afford to keep paying for repeated lawsuits that result from the same kinds of problems such as inadequate health care, poor mental health treatment and insufficient staffing" (Thompson, AP/San Diego Union-Tribune, 7/1).
Margita Thompson, a spokesperson for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), said, "We look forward to working with the receiver to create a sustainable health care system" (Los Angeles Times, 7/1).
The following articles also addressed Henderson's decision.
- "Prison Health Care Seized; Citing Some 'Outright Depravity,' U.S. Judge Will Pick Overseer" (Cooper, Sacramento Bee, 7/1).
- "State Prison Health Care Taken Over" (Gladstone, San Jose Mercury News, 7/1).
In related news, inmates, employees and visitors at state correctional facilities beginning Friday are no longer allowed to use tobacco under a law (AB 384) passed last year (Warren, Los Angeles Times, 6/30).
Schwarzenegger in September 2004 signed the bill into law. The legislation, sponsored by Assembly member Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City), prohibits tobacco products from being sold in prison stores or sent to state inmates. The ban also applies to inmates at California Youth Authority facilities. Smoking already is prohibited in eight of the state's 32 prisons that serve as medical facilities or as reception centers for incoming prisoners.
At the time, Leslie said the bill could save the state as much as $280 million annually in smoking-related medical costs. About half of the state's prisoners smoke, according to Leslie (California Healthline, 9/28/2004).
Previously, inmates were allowed to use tobacco in recreation yards and in outdoor areas at facilities where smoking was not banned.
Under the law, inmates who use tobacco are subject to temporary loss of privileges, extra work duty or additional sentencing. Staff members who distribute tobacco are subject to temporary pay cuts or dismissal.
Opponents of the law say prohibiting tobacco use will contribute to inmates' irritability and anxiety, possibly increasing the number of violent incidents in prisons.
States where tobacco use has been prohibited also have reported "elaborate, illegal distribution networks" in which inmates obtain tobacco from staff or visitors and hire assistants to roll and sell cigarettes, the Times reports (Los Angeles Times, 6/30).
KPBS' "KPBS News" on Thursday reported on the start of the smoking ban. The segment includes comments from Terry Thornton, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections (Goldberg, "KPBS News," KPBS, 6/30). The complete transcript is available online. The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.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.