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Federal judges order California to release 43,000 inmates

Federal judges call conditions in the prisons 'appalling' and unconstitutional. A reduction plan is due by mid-September.

August 05, 2009|Carol J. Williams

"It's frankly a day of reckoning for those who have pushed for constant sentence enhancements, who would decimate rehabilitation programs and who oppose revenues to support state services," said Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), alluding to Republican lawmakers' conflicting efforts to be tough on crime while cutting spending.

"Today's decision by the three-judge panel is a nightmare come true for California families," countered Assembly Minority Leader Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo. "Any fair-minded court will see there is no way to reduce our prison population by nearly 43,000 without letting out some very dangerous criminals onto our streets and into our neighborhoods."

The judges pointedly rejected any notion that conditions have improved. Citing testimony during last year's trial by some of the nation's foremost prison administrators, the judges said the experts reported "they have never previously witnessed such appalling prison conditions."

Until overcrowding is reduced, the state will be unable to provide "constitutionally compliant care," concluded the panel comprised of U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton, and U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt.

The judges said overcrowding at prison reception centers approaches three times designed capacity, frustrating prison intake officials' ability to identify incoming prisoners with medical or mental health problems.

Overcrowding has led to conditions that contribute to the spread of disease, require increased use of lockdowns to control inmates, and impede authorities' ability to provide essential healthcare, the judges said. It also "worsens many of the risk factors for suicide among inmates and increases the prevalence and acuity of mental illness," they added.

Conditions are "often dangerous, and on many occasions fatal," the judges said, alluding to reports that California inmates die of treatable or avoidable illnesses at the rate of one per week.

Henderson, a judge of the U.S. District Court for Northern California, seized oversight of the prison healthcare network in 2006 and appointed a receiver to fix the deficiencies.

J. Clark Kelso, the receiver, said in a recent interview that his staff was making progress on a daunting array of projects but that significant improvements remain at least a year away. He plans to computerize inmate medical records, replace a deficient pharmacy operation, build at least $2 billion worth of hospitals and upgrade existing ones.

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carol.williams@latimes.com

Times staff writers Evan Halper and Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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