Monday, March 16, 2009
The Schwarzenegger administration told a federal judge Monday that a court-appointed receiver has outlived his usefulness and is no longer needed to improve medical care in the state's prison system.
Attorney Paul Mello said the receiver has overstepped federal law by seeking $8 billion from the state to build medical and mental health centers for 10,000 inmates.
U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson created the receivership in 2006 to take control of health care in the state's 33 adult prisons after finding conditions violated inmates' constitutional rights. Inmates were dying of neglect or malpractice at the rate of about one each week, the court found.
Mello acknowledged that receiver J. Clark Kelso has made "dramatic improvements" since then, so much so that he said the state can retake control of its own prisons.
The judge made no immediate decision following a nearly hour-long hearing in his San Francisco courtroom.
"Circumstances have changed" including "the virtual elimination of preventable deaths," said Mello, a private attorney hired to represent the administration. "The foundations are in place and will continue."
He said the extraordinary powers of a receiver can be reduced to the lesser oversight of a special master who would continue to monitor improvements under Henderson's direction.
Kelso's proposal to siphon state money for seven new medical and mental health centers is prohibited by the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act, Mello argued. Moreover, the centers aren't needed, particularly as a federal three-judge panel is expected to order the state to cut its inmate population by about one-third to ease crowding, Mello said.
The judges tentatively ruled that overcrowding was the leading cause of poor health care delivery to inmates and that reducing the population was crucial to restoring adequate service.
Mello said the state has signaled its willingness to continue improving inmate health care on its own by spending $2 billion this year alone to treat prisoners. The state spends about $14,000 per year to treat, transport and guard each ailing inmate, he said.
California "has put its money where its mouth is," Mello said. "California spends far more per year per inmate than any other jurisdiction."
Attorneys representing the court-appointed receiver and inmate advocacy groups disputed Mello's arguments.
The state increased spending and improved conditions only because the receiver insisted, said Kelso's attorney, James Brosnahan.
The state stopped cooperating last summer as its financial condition deteriorated and lawmakers balked at approving bonds to pay for prison medical construction. But state officials have offered no plan for how they would take over the receiver's responsibilities, he noted.
"They don't have a plan. They don't have an endgame except to attack the receiver," he told the judge.
Outside court, Brosnahan said the receiver understands the state's financial problems but said that should not be an excuse for allowing inadequate care to continue.
"They can't have prisoners dying for lack of medical care," he said. "No jury, no judge, gave them the death penalty. They need minimal health care."
Kelso remains flexible, offering to scale back his construction plans as conditions change, Brosnahan said. In addition, Kelso's power to order the state to spend money for prison construction is awaiting a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Even with the receiver's improvements, prison conditions remain inhumane, said Rebekah Evenson, an attorney representing inmates for the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office.
While clearly preventable deaths declined to just three in 2007, the last year for which statistics are available, "possibly preventable" inmate deaths climbed to 65 that year.
"We think the receiver is absolutely necessary," Evenson said outside the courthouse. "People's lives are being lost on a weekly basis."