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Class Action Medical Neglect Suit Filed Against CDC

Alleging that the California Department of Corrections (CDC) violates the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment by providing seriously inadequate medical care to state prisoners, the Prison Law Office and the law firms Pillsbury Winthrop and McCutchen Doyle Brown & Enersen filed a class action lawsuit on April 5 2001 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco.

The case, Plata v. Davis, COI1351 MMC, seeks injunctive relief _ an order that the CDC improve its medical care system to meet the constitutional standard and monetary damages for the nine named plaintiffs. Once the case is certified as a class action the injunctive relief will apply to all state prisoners incarcerated in California's 33 prisons.

Marciano Plata, the lead named plaintiff, has had repeated problems obtaining adequate medical treatment, compounded by the medical staff's failure to provide a Spanishlanguage interpreter. In 1997 Plata fell while working at his prison job, injuring his right knee, back and head. An MTA examined him but did not provide any medical treatment or a doctor's referral, and Plata was then forced to walk unassisted back to his cell. He later fell two more times after repeated, unsuccessful attempts to obtain treatment for his painful injuries.

Almost two years after his original injury Plata finally had knee surgery. After his discharge from the hospital the same day he was forced to walk unaided back to his housing unit and as a result suffered severe pain and inflammation of his foot. Since the surgery Plata has not received any postoperative care or physical therapy, and he continues to suffer serious problems.

Ray Stoderd, another plaintiff, was prescribed methadone to ease his AIDS related pain. Despite the fact that methadone is a physically dependent medication which needs to be gradually discontinued, prison doctors at least eight times abruptly discontinued that treatment.

As a result Stoderd suffered withdrawal, an extremely painful condition, which involves uncontrolled shaking, vomiting, insomnia, headaches, dizziness, hot flashes, sweats, chills and loss of appetite. Inadequate pain management is a common complaint voiced by prisoners.

Plaintiff Paul Decasas has seizure disorder, which the CDC has continually failed to treat and monitor adequately. He was transferred from a medical facility even though he was still having frequent seizures. It is sometimes very difficult for him to obtain bite sticks even though he is always at risk for having a serious seizure and bite through his tongue

These plaintiffs represent only a few of the thousands of cases of substandard medical care to which prisoners are subjected. The lawsuit alleges that MTAs (the "gatekeepers" for prisoners' access to medical care) are inadequately trained to perform their duties and have conflicting custodial responsibilities, there are not enough qualified medical staff, medical records often are disorganized and incomplete, medical screening is inadequate, there are lengthy delays in accessing care, including delays to see a primary physician, to see a specialist, to obtain medical testing and to obtain treatment and that delays are compounded when prisoners are transferred to new institutions.

The complaint also claims that there are frequent failures to provide prisoners with medical care altogether, that emergency response is poor, that guards frequently interfere with the provision of medical care, that quality control procedures are deficient, that there is a lack of established protocols for dealing with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and particularly HIV and Hepatitis C, that the CDC is unable to recruit sufficient, competent medical staff and to retain hired staff, that necessary medical care is often denied based solely on a prisoner's expected release date, and that the defendants lack sufficient knowledge about the medical care system to properly monitor and improve the delivery of medical care.

The Prison Law Office has been litigating class action prison conditions lawsuits for over twenty years; including successfully challenging the CDC's treatment of prisoners with disabilities and mentally ill prisoners and inadequate medical care at individual facilities.

As part of the office's current campaign to improve the entire CDC medical care system, in March 2001 the office filed suit in state court alleging that the CDC is in violation of a state statute which requires medical facilities that provide acute, inpatient care to be licensed.

The Plata complaint is available on the Prison Law Office website ( as a PDF file. California state prisoners with medical care complaints may write to the Prison Law Office at General Delivery, San Quentin, CA 94964. Because resources must be devoted to litigating the class action the office typically cannot provide individual assistance, but is gathering evidence from prisoners to present in the lawsuit.

Less than two months after the lawsuit was filed California attorney general Bill Lockyer asked the legislature for $44.1 million to fight the lawsuit. The money is to be spent to hire 18 lawyers and their staff, expert witnesses and to process evidence. $23.8 million of that amount would be to computerize prisoner medical files to use in the litigation.

Prison Law Office Director Donald Spector told media: "Our whole goal is to get medical care up to constitutional standards, and if they spent $44 million, it would be a big step in the right direction."

Apparently this feeling is shared by at least one legislator. On May 16. 2001, senate budget committee chairman Richard Polanco (DLos Angeles) refused to approve the first $12 million sought by Lockyer to fight the lawsuit. Polanco said he wanted to know why the Davis administration wanted to fight the lawsuit rather than spend the money on medical care for prisoners. PLN will report developments in the case as they occur.

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Related legal case

Plata v. Davis