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Reviewers critical of Salinas prison for deaths, drug diversions

August 23, 2013|By Paige St. John
  • A team of medical experts Friday told a federal judge that medical care at Salinas Valley State Prison puts prisoners at risk of death.
A team of medical experts Friday told a federal judge that medical care at… (California Department…)

SACRAMENTO -- Inmates are dying from inadequate medical care at the state prison in Monterey, even under the watch of the federal courts, a team of experts reported Friday.

The reviewers told U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson that care in the Salinas Valley State Prison is "incomplete and fragmented” and "callous," with major abuse of opiates, nurses accused of pilfering drugs, and doctors who ignore patient needs. Clinics were described as "filthy," and emergency medical treatment was performed in hallways, the report stated.

The 106-page report notes that more than half of the physicians are under some sort of professional monitoring, that nurses accused of diverting drugs are still employed in the mail room, and that the prison has gone through four chief medical officers in four years, the current one being part-time.

It chronicles the deaths of several patients, including a man whose heart infection went untreated, and the case of a prisoner with back pain who became progressively paralyzed from the waist down yet received only a catheter. The report also documents cases where doctors ordered pain medications for prisoners to be cut off without seeing those patients.

The reviewers told Henderson that most of the physician discipline files were empty or had critical records missing. They suggested a "reluctance" at the prison to acknowledge when patients were being harmed by their doctors.

A lawyer for California inmates called the report "alarming."

"Salinas is among the worst," said Don Specter, with the Prison Law Office, which has battled with California prison officials for decades over inmate medical care.

The organization's lawsuit prompted Henderson seven years ago to put a court-appointed receiver in charge of California's prison medical system.

That office Friday said the report "points to the fact that turning around an entire health care system from a time when inmates were dying needlessly is obviously not an easy job, and not one that happens overnight," said Joyce Hayhoe, legislative liaison for medical receiver Clark Kelso.

"While we believe we have made great strides at improving health care, there is certainly still work to be done," Hayhoe said.

The current round of prison medical inspections were started after California asked the court to consider returning responsibility for prison medical programs to the state. An earlier review of the same prison by the state office of inspector general gave Salinas Valley fairly high marks, saying it met 88% of the inspector's healthcare goals.

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on Twitter: @paigestjohn

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

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