Struggle for prison health care enters new phase

A new phase opened May 7 in the long-running struggle to provide adequate health care for California prison inmates and to end conditions a federal judge said in 2005 were leading to the unnecessary death of one inmate a week.

The State of California, the attorneys who brought the lawsuit on behalf of prison inmates, and the receiver now in charge of prison health care filed a joint report in court this week, setting forth their differing – in some cases opposing – views on how to end the receivership while assuring adequate treatment for the state’s current inmates.

The state claims prison health care has been “totally transformed,” with a “well-qualified” staff, new or improved facilities, and a lower inmate population than when the receivership was ordered. It wants the court to end the receivership in 30 days, with a monitor observing progress for another year.

Last month California unveiled a comprehensive plan on how to ensure “a quality medical care system for years to come.”

But attorneys for the inmates say that while conditions have improved, big health care problems remain at many prisons, and the state hasn’t shown it can continue to improve things if the receivership is lifted. They also contend California is refusing to cut the prison population to the court-ordered number, and has not yet done needed upgrades to prison medical facilities.

“There are still problems at many prisons, with getting timely access to a physician and timely access to their medications that they need,” Prison Law Office attorney Donald Spector, the lead attorney in the case, told southern California public radio station KPCC.

Spector said one of the biggest improvements to date has been getting rid of incompetent medical staff and bringing in more, and better qualified, professionals. 

However, federal receiver J. Clark Kelso said some newer staff members have quit because of inadequate clinic facilities and other ongoing problems.

Kelso says the receivership should last until the inmate population is lowered to the court-ordered number, and more progress is made on building new medical facilities.

The struggle has a long history. Class action suits charging inadequate care date back to 1990 and 2001.

In 2005, after U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson found that an average of one inmate a week was dying because of inadequate health care, he ordered the prison health care system into receivership.

In 2009, a federal three-judge panel including Judge Henderson said prison health care in California’s greatly overcrowded prisons amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, and ordered the state to cut the prison population by more than a quarter over a two-year period.

The state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled a year ago that the prison population must indeed be cut.

Among factors contributing to California’s soaring prison population, observers point to Prop. 184, the “three strikes and you’re out” ballot measure passed in 1994, which imposes minimum sentences of 25 years to life for three-time repeat offenders with previous serious or violent felony convictions.

But the California Legislative Analyst’s Office says only about 37 percent of those sentenced under three strikes were convicted of crimes against persons, while over half were convicted of property or drug crimes.

Advocates for sentencing reform point to the large numbers of African Americans and Latinos who are incarcerated for minor offenses including drug violations, and parolees who are sent back to prison for minor technical parole violations.

A ballot initiative to limit three-strikes sentencing to cases where the third offense, or a prior offense, is serious or violent is now undergoing signature verification, and may be on the November ballot.

Photo: Derek Key // CC 2.0


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.