California's bid to end court oversight of the care it gives about 33,000 mentally ill inmates was heard Wednesday by a federal judge who voiced concern that he had only days to weigh thousands of pages of contradictory claims and issue a decision.
Gov. Jerry Brown's motion to end oversight, filed in early January, triggered a federal law that requires a decision in 90 days. Documents produced in court show the state began its own preparation in late 2011, when it hired experts to review the adequacy of inmate care.
U. S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton questioned whether it mattered if the state had decided yet to end the case when it began sending those experts on tours of state prisons without notifying prisoner rights lawyers. In filings to the court last week, state attorneys argued they were safe to assume plaintiffs were aware of the tours even if not directly told.
Karlton on Wednesday repeatedly said he believed the question of inmate care deserves time for full hearings, and at one point suggested the state waive its right for a decision by April 7. "You can go home and think about it," Karlton directed state lawyers.
California officials, including Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard, on Wednesday repeated their contention the state has sufficiently fixed problems in mental health care for inmates, including prison expansion projects that added space for psychiatric beds and eliminated waiting lists for care.
Prisoners rights lawyers say those waiting lists, though not as large, still exist. They cite a climbing prison suicide rate, the incarceration of mentally ill inmates in isolation cells, and alleged staffing shortages at prison psychiatric hospitals as indicative of the continued need for federal oversight.
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