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Federal judge rejects California's plea on prison healthcare

Judge Thelton Henderson turns down request to end court control of state's prison healthcare. Although Henderson says he has seen improvements, he has 'no confidence' that progress would continue.

March 25, 2009|Michael Rothfeld

A federal judge Tuesday rejected a bid by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown to end court oversight of healthcare in state prisons and to drop construction plans for inmate medical facilities estimated to cost up to $8 billion.

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who seized control of the prison health system in 2006, wrote in a 24-page decision that the state had not proved it would, on its own, bring the quality of care up to standards consistent with inmates' constitutional rights.

His ruling escalated the showdown between state officials and the federal courts over conditions in California prisons. Brown and Schwarzenegger's aides said they would seek to have the decision overturned by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The state went to the judge in January, arguing that he should appoint a special master with limited powers in place of receiver J. Clark Kelso, who has hired new doctors and nurses, commandeered additional correctional officers to transport sick inmates and proposed the $8-billion construction plan.

A special master would serve in the modest role of court monitor once the state was back in charge of the system.

"While the state is committed to providing a constitutional level of care to inmates, we must do so in an economically viable way," Matthew Cate, Schwarzenegger's top official at the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in a statement after the ruling. "The return of control of inmate medical care to the state is the best way to accomplish this."

Henderson, who once said that an inmate was dying unnecessarily every week in California prisons, agreed that the state had devoted more money to healthcare since then, and he said the situation had improved. But the judge attributed the changes to the court's efforts, saying that he had "no confidence that such improvements would continue, or even be maintained, in the absence of the receivership."

Henderson also rejected the state's contention that he had overstepped federal law by appointing a receiver in the first place, that the construction plan was a more "intrusive" solution than required and that the proposed healthcare facilities amounted to illegal court-ordered prison construction.

Brown, reacting to the ruling, said the judge was wrong, contending that the "federal receivership has become its own autonomous government operating outside the normal checks and balances of state and federal law."

"California is spending almost $14,000 per inmate for healthcare per year, far more than any other state," said Brown, who is exploring a run for governor next year. "It is time for a dose of fiscal common-sense."

Kelso has been fighting with state officials since last spring, when they refused to authorize funding for his construction plan. He sought a motion to have them found in contempt of court, which is now pending, and accused them of operating with political motivations.

But in recent weeks he has tried to dial back the rhetoric, attributing the replacement of some of his top staff members, including his former chief of staff, to a desire to repair the relationship with the state.

His reaction to Henderson's decision was equally conciliatory. Kelso said he looked forward "with renewed commitment" to working with state officials to bring inmate healthcare up to constitutional standards, and to transition the system back into their hands.

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michael.rothfeld@latimes.com

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