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End of Prison Oversight Not Certain

AP Interview: End of prison oversight not certain

By DON THOMPSON, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) ó The court-appointed receiver overseeing
California's prison health care system said Friday the state must keep
its promise to spend more than $2 billion for new medical facilities
before the federal courts can end an oversight role that has lasted
six years.

California committed to spending $750 million to upgrade existing
medical facilities, building a new $906 million medical center and
converting juvenile lockups at a cost of $817 million. So far, only
the new medical center in Stockton is being built.

Receiver J. Clark Kelso told The Associated Press that the state must
begin all the upgrades before it should be allowed to retake control
of a prison medical system once deemed so poor that it was found to
have violated inmates' constitutional rights. They are his first
public comments since a federal judge last week told officials to
begin preparing for an end to the receivership.

"That leaves a court order that the state is now out of compliance
with," Kelso said during the 75-minute interview. "The courts have
been promised construction for the last half-decade. Somehow those
promises don't get kept."

California officials are analyzing the need for new medical facilities
in light of a state law that took effect last year that is sending
lower-level criminals to county jails instead of state prisons.
Federal judges have ordered the state to reduce its prison population
by 33,000 inmates over two years to improve the treatment of mentally
and physically ill inmates, a decision that has been upheld by the
U.S. Supreme Court.

At its height in 2006, California's inmate population was more than 162,000.
Kelso said the medical center that is under construction in Stockton
and the $750 million in upgrades are needed even if the state has
fewer inmates. Conversion of the juvenile lockups was to have included
new housing and treatment facilities for sick and mentally ill
inmates.

Kelso has been negotiating with officials from the state Department of
Corrections and Rehabilitation and attorneys representing inmates
after a federal judge issued a notice saying it was time to begin
ending the federal receivership. Court oversight of medical care in
the nation's largest state prison system has led to improvements in
inmate health care that have cost California taxpayers billions of
dollars.

"We'll just see if the parties can't find a middle ground for
agreement," Kelso said.

The pace of those negotiations will determine how quickly the state
can retake control of its prison health care operations, he said.
Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate said he wanted to see the
receivership end as early as this summer, although he also said it
would be appropriate for the courts to maintain some type of oversight
role to ensure that inmate care does not deteriorate.

"I think the sooner we return day-to-day operations to the state, the
better," Cate told the AP in an interview earlier this week. "We need
to work out the construction issues, obviously, and I know that Clark
is also concerned about making sure there's a strong structure in
place to maintain the strides we've made. But if we can work those
issues out, I'd love to see it be this summer."

Kelso said the state also should create a quasi-independent medical
bureaucracy within the corrections department to make sure the state
doesn't backslide because of budget cuts or a lack of interest.
"A lot of that has to do with budget independence and the independence
of the head of prison health care really to control his or her
budget," Kelso said. "They can't just get lost in the big haze that is
the corrections budget."

He said the corrections department traditionally has focused on
keeping inmates safely locked up, with a lesser emphasis on the
well-being of those prisoners, and it is unclear if that culture has
changed.

Citing inmate overcrowding as the leading cause, the federal courts
previously found that medical care for California prisoners was so
poor that an average of one inmate a week was dying of neglect or
malpractice. It ordered the prison population reduced, prompting the
department to send layoff notices this week to 548 employees because
fewer workers are needed as the number of inmates declines.

In the notice he filed last week, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton
Henderson said conditions had improved enough to consider ending the
receivership. He said most of the goals of the federal oversight had
been met.

The San Francisco-based judge ordered Kelso, state officials and
inmates' attorneys to report by April 30 on when the receivership
should end and whether it should continue some role in ensuring that
conditions remained constitutional.

"I think this all depends much more on the state's progress than on
mine," Kelso said. "Frankly, if the construction had been done as
promised, I'd be a hell of a lot closer."

Copyright © 2012 The Associated Press.

Last updated February 7, 2012 11:52 PM



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