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California and the West

Inmates' Medical Care Focus of Suit

Court: The class action against the state claims prisoners' lives are at risk. An official defends system.

April 06, 2001|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — California prisoners suffer needlessly and are at risk of death because state corrections officials are ill-trained, underfunded and indifferent to inmates' medical needs, according to a class-action lawsuit filed Thursday.

The suit follows years of persistent complaints about health care in state prisons, and the recent deaths of eight female inmates.

Filed in federal court in San Francisco, it alleges that deficient care by Gov. Gray Davis' administration subjects prisoners to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

"When inmates are denied the medical care they need, it can amount to a death sentence," said Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit firm handling the case with a team of private lawyers donating their time.

"Gov. Gray Davis . . . knows the care is substandard and he has failed to take action," Specter said.

Though it was filed on behalf of all 160,000 California inmates, the lawsuit names nine plaintiffs scattered at prisons around the state. One, Raymond Stoderd, has advanced AIDS and claims that his pain medication was consistently interrupted, causing suffering and damaging side effects.

A second plaintiff, Gilbert Aviles, is a paraplegic who claims that his urinary catheter--which doctors ordered changed every 14 days--was left unchanged for two months, causing infections that required hospitalization.

Officials at the Department of Corrections would not discuss individual cases, calling inmate medical files confidential.

But spokeswoman Margot Bach, while describing prison health care as "compassionate and adequate," acknowledged that the system has a shortage of doctors and that inmates do not always receive prompt treatment.

She added, however, that "these problems aren't confined to the prison system. My mother has cancer, and she waits for weeks for approval from her HMO to get something her doctor has said will help her.

"We aren't perfect, but we're striving mightily to provide quality medical care for inmates, many of whom come into prison with ongoing health issues," Bach said.

Thursday's legal action comes seven years after another lawsuit by the Prison Law Office prompted a federal court to order sweeping reforms in how the state treats mentally ill inmates.

Specter and his associates also have filed suits attacking medical care at several individual penitentiaries. The class action, Specter said, marks the largest ever against a statewide prison system.

Inmate lawyers say they tried for 18 months to settle the lawsuit, but that negotiators for the governor cut off talks in January. State officials would not comment on that claim, saying negotiations were to be kept secret. But they characterized the Prison Law Office demands as excessive.

"They seem to think we should have Cadillac treatment for inmates that is far beyond the treatment available to you and I who have medical insurance," said Steve Green, assistant secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency. "We provide treatment that is comparable to that available in the community."

Specter disagrees, and the lawsuit claims deficiencies ranging from a shortage of medical staff to delays in treatment and laboratory tests, poor health screening of incoming inmates, and a lack of protocols for dealing with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and AIDS.

The suit also charges that inmate medical records are "disorganized and incomplete," a problem compounded when prisoners are transferred from one institution to another.

Green agreed that corrections record-keeping--both for medical purposes and basic tracking of inmates' lives behind bars--is "a nightmare."

"Most of our record-keeping is on paper, and that's a big problem," Green said. "We want to automate our system and we're working on that. But it's expensive."

Though Davis has not freed up funding for that project, Green said the governor has made significant increases in spending on medical care in recent years.

In the 1999-2000 fiscal year, spending on inmate health care was $566 million. The governor's budget for 2001-2002--which may change, given the energy crisis--calls for $724 million.

Specter said the increases are like "offering a Band-Aid for a condition that requires major surgery." He added that although the public may not view state spending on inmate care as a high priority, most prisoners will return to society and pose potential public health problems if their diseases--many of them infectious--are not treated.

Among those cheering the filing of the lawsuit is Mary Kelly, who teaches high school history in Simi Valley. Kelly's son, James, died of tongue cancer that she says went untreated while he served a two-year drug sentence.

Kelly said that her son's lesion was visible but that prison doctors claimed he was injuring himself by biting his tongue. That assessment led to a months-long delay in treatment and allowed the cancer to spread to his neck, she said.

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