On Tuesday, a panel of three federal judges granted California six additional months to comply with federal orders to reduce prison overcrowding, the San Jose Mercury News reports.
About six years ago, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson appointed federal receiver J. Clark Kelso to oversee the state’s prison health care system after determining that an average of one inmate per week died as a result of malpractice or neglect.
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its inmate population to help improve prison health care.
In April 2012, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation released a plan for reorganizing the state’s prisons and ending federal oversight.
In October 2012, federal officials agreed to begin transferring select administrative functions of California’s prison health care system to state officials.
Earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration asked a federal court to drop its order for significant reductions in prison inmate populations, according to California Healthline. The administration also filed a request to end federal oversight of care provided to inmates with mental illnesses. Brown pledged to seek a similar end to federal oversight of the entire prison health care system.
Details of the judges’ order
According to the judges, California officials have said that they cannot meet the federal deadline of June 30 for reducing the inmate population to 137.5 percent of design capacity. However, the judges said that state officials believe they can make the reduction by Dec. 31.
The judges wrote, “Accordingly, this court modifies the June 30, 2011, order by granting defendants a six-month extension in which to comply with its terms and provisions,” the Sacramento Bee reports.
The order also requires that state officials divulge whether they seek to file a motion to end federal oversight of the prison healthcare system, according to the Los Angeles Times “PolitiCal” column on Jan. 29.
Response to order
In a statement, CDCR said, “We are pleased the court recognized that releasing thousands of inmates to reach the arbitrary population cap by June would have jeopardized public safety.” However, the agency said, “[W]e believe the court should go further and terminate the population cap entirely, as CDCR is providing a constitutional level of health care at current population levels.”
Michael Bien, an attorney for inmates, said that “the order’s message is the judges are going to hold the state to the numbers.” According to Bien, Brown and prison officials “are still saying everything is just fine, and the courts should go away and leave us alone.” He said, “It’s one thing to say that, it’s another to prove it,” the Sacramento Bee reports.
New prisons chief is former critic
In related news, Brown’s new corrections secretary was once a critic of California’s prison system, the Los Angeles Times reports. Brown has named Jeffrey Beard – formerly Pennsylvania’s prisons chief – as head of the state’s prisons.
Federal judges who capped the state’s prison population cited Beard’s expert testimony 39 times. Beard said that California prisons were overcrowded, unsafe and unable to deliver adequate health care services to inmates.
On Tuesday, Beard said, “I agree with what I said back then,” adding, “On the flip side, things have changed.” He said that inmate health care services have improved.
The Times reports that the state now has 35,000 fewer inmates than when Beard testified.
This story first appeared on California Healthline.