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California wants to retake control of prison health system

A lawyer for the state says there's been a 'virtual elimination of preventable deaths' due to poor services. A lawyer representing the receiver says the state has no 'end game' for completing reforms.

March 17, 2009|Maura Dolan

SAN FRANCISCO — A lawyer for the state, citing "dramatic improvements" in state prisons, asked a federal judge Monday to end a receiver's control of California's prison healthcare system.

Paul Mello, representing the state, told U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson that there has been a "virtual elimination of alleged preventable deaths" due to shoddy prison health services.

"Circumstances have changed," Mello said.

But James J. Brosnahan, representing the receiver Henderson appointed to overhaul prison medical care, said the state had no "end game" for completing reforms and warned that lives remained at risk.

Brosnahan told the court that a 36-year-old inmate with an IQ of a 9-year-old died last year because no one monitored his anti-seizure medication. In 2007, there were three "preventable deaths" of inmates, 65 "possibly preventable" deaths and 292 instances in which inmates received extremely substandard care, Brosnahan said.

Henderson nodded several times as Brosnahan spoke but did not disclose his views. Henderson said he would rule "as quickly as possible."

The state's attempt to take back control of the prison health system follows months of concerted criticism by Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, who contends the receivership is wasting taxpayer money, and a motion filed by the receiver, J. Clark Kelso, demanding the state release money for prison hospital construction.

Brown's campaign and Kelso's decision to ask that the administration be held in contempt if it did not release $250 million preceded the state's decision this year to ask that the receiver be replaced with a less powerful special master.

As a receiver, Kelso runs the prison heath system. A special master would be more of a monitor with no power to hire and fire. At the time the state moved to eliminate his office, Kelso said he was "outraged."

Mello, speaking on behalf of the state, told Henderson that California spends $14,000 a year per inmate on healthcare, which Mello said was twice the amount spent in federal prisons. Texas spends less than $5,100 per inmate, Mello said.

Henderson took notes as Mello spoke and asked him to repeat the dollar amounts. A spokesman for Kelso later said that Mello's figures included one-time spending needed to bring the health system up to date.

Mello, citing the "horrible economic times," also told Henderson that the state has "been thwarted" in its efforts to obtain more information about the health system, including the inmate deaths.

Brosnahan said the law did not support the state's contentions and argued that the receiver has closely cooperated with the state.

"It's quite clear, point by point, that the cooperation was total" until the "determination was made to proceed on a litigation front," Brosnahan said.

"Is the receiver to be removed because he did what the court wanted him to do?" Brosnahan asked.

Kelso recently removed two staff members, including the former chief of staff who had moved aggressively against the administration to obtain prison funds.

Kelso's request that the administration be held in contempt is now pending before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Rebekah Evenson, a lawyer with the Prison Law Office, which filed a lawsuit that led to the federal takeover of prison healthcare, said the state's decision to try to remove Kelso followed years of close and friendly cooperation. Prison healthcare has been under a receiver since 2006.

"They just completely changed tactics," Evenson said.

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maura.dolan@latimes.com

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Researcher Robin Mayper contributed to this report.

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