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Federal judge expands prison oversight to state hospitals

July 11, 2013|By Paige St. John
  • Suicide watch cages at Salinas Valley State Prison.
Suicide watch cages at Salinas Valley State Prison.

Citing "significant and troubling evidence" that inmates are not receiving adequate mental health care, a federal judge Thursday expanded court oversight to include the Department of State Hospitals.

Judge Lawrence Karlton said prisoners' lawyers said severe staffing shortages, wait lists and even "denial of basic necessities including clean underwear" may be harming mentally ill prisoners. His order requires a court-appointed monitor to report back in 75 on those conditions. The judge said he is holding off on issuing further orders until he receives that report.

The Department of State Hospitals had no immediate response. Michael Bien, lead attorney for prisoners in the long-running class-action suit, called Karlton's latest ruling "pretty much a victory."

Karlton's order Thursday is the latest in a long string of rulings in the 1990 class-action case finding unconstitutionally poor levels of care for the mentally ill in California's prison system. The state's bid in January to end oversight was rejected by Karlton.

On Thursday, Karlton made it clear the federal court's oversight covers not just programs under the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, but also those run by the Department of State Hospitals.

Karlton said he heard enough evidence of short staffing, delays in care and patients being discharged from care prematurely during three and a half days of testimony last month to ask the court's monitor to investigate further. "Given the urgency," he is asking for that report in 75 days.

The same federal judge later this summer is scheduled to hear related complaints that mentally ill inmates are improperly being kept in solitary confinement. Conditions in those solitary confinement units are at the center of widespread protests in the state prison system involving some 29,000 inmates.


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On Twitter: @paigestjohn

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