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Motions to Oust California Prison System’s Federal Healthcare Receiver Denied

by John E. Dannenberg

On March 24, 2009, motions by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to terminate the Receivership now operating the state’s prison healthcare system under a longstanding federal lawsuit were denied by the U.S. District Court.

Judge Thelton E. Henderson found that the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 18 U.S.C. § 3626, did not preclude him from appointing a Receiver – as was argued by the CDCR two years after they agreed to such an appointment. Additionally, the court rejected CDCR’s motion to terminate the Receiver’s prison medical facility construction plan, which the CDCR alleged was too intrusive into state rights.

The federal Receivership was ordered in February 2006 after Judge Henderson found that inadequate healthcare at CDCR facilities was violating the constitutional rights of prisoners (literally killing them at a rate of over 60 per year), and that no alternative narrowly-drawn remedy would cure the violations.

While some of the Receiver’s CDCR medical facility construction projects were in fact begun (most notably the new hospital at San Quentin State Prison and temporary modular clinics at three other prisons), no work was commenced at the remaining 29 CDCR facilities covered by the Receiver. The Receiver had demanded that state officials advance $250 million in legislatively-appropriated funds to begin planning for the needed expansion in prison hospital beds statewide, but Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger refused to comply.

Instead, Attorney General Jerry Brown (currently an announced candidate for governor in 2010) filed a motion to dismiss the Receiver and replace him with a “special master” with vastly reduced powers. Brown argued that the state was improving prison healthcare and that a Receiver was no longer needed. Of course, the improvements he cited were due to court-ordered requirements in the lawsuit, under the direction of the court-appointed Receiver.

Brown’s motion amounted to a tactical delay in funding, a move no doubt tied to California’s massive budget crisis – but it did nothing to salve the healthcare deficiencies suffered by the state’s 170,000 prisoners.

The district court rejected CDCR’s argument that appointing a Receiver exceeded the authority vested in the courts under the PLRA. CDCR had tried to confuse the issue by citing Congressional intent language tied to an earlier bill that had been rejected. Judge Henderson relied on the axiom that discarded language from a prior version of a bill cannot later be resurrected when construing the final form of the legislation.

CDCR then argued that the Receiver’s medical facility construction plan should be terminated. This approach failed when the court noted that it had not in fact “ordered construction,” but rather had ordered the CDCR to bring its prison healthcare system up to constitutional standards. Thus, the court was not operating in excess of its authority.

As to the Receiver’s orders, the district court found that his plan was not a set of detailed orders for construction and therefore did not amount to “ordered construction” as claimed. Regarding the proposed construction of prison medical facilities, none had yet been approved by the court and thus the state’s objections were premature.

In sum, CDCR’s motions to reduce the strain of California’s budget crisis on the backs of prisoners being denied constitutional healthcare were denied. CDCR has since appealed this ruling to the Ninth Circuit. However, the outlook in the appellate court is not good.
The day after Judge Henderson denied the motions, the Ninth Circuit rejected the state’s appeal of his October 2008 order to hold a contempt hearing against Governor Schwarzenegger for failing to advance the $250 million demanded by the Receiver. This pits the court against the governor’s line-in-the-sand, and the cost of constitutional prison medical care against the CDCR’s concededly deficient healthcare services.

On June 25, 2009, Gov. Schwarzenegger scuttled a tentative agreement with the Receiver to build and refurbish prison medical facilities as part of a plan to regain state control over the CDCR’s healthcare system. The governor issued a statement saying he “cannot agree to spend $2 billion on state-of-the-art medical facilities for prisoners while we are cutting billions of dollars from schools and health care programs for children and seniors.”

However, CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate acknowledged that money for the new medical facilities would not negatively impact California’s $24.3 billion budget deficit, since the funding would come from other sources.

The state’s refusal to build more prison medical facilities to ensure constitutional healthcare for prisoners puts the ball back in Judge Henderson’s court. The Receiver, Clark Kelso, has recommended a ten-year plan to construct 5,000 to 10,000 prison hospital beds, which will cost the state an estimated $4-8 billion. See: Plata v. Schwarzenegger, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. C01-1351 TEH.

Ominously, in the Eastern District of California, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence K. Karlton appeared ready to appoint a second healthcare Receiver in a 19-year-old case regarding the CDCR’s failure to treat mentally ill prisoners, who are often driven to suicide. On March 24, 2009, Karlton gave prison officials 60 days to come up with a remedial plan or face more contempt charges, and during a June 16 hearing he remarked that unless the state provided solutions to improve prison mental health care, he would “start eating into their budget in a real dramatic way.” See: Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. C-90-0520 LKK JFM.

PLN has extensively reported on the Plata and Coleman lawsuits, including the February 9, 2009 order by a three-judge panel overseeing those cases that may lead to the early release of tens of thousands of California prisoners. [See: PLN, March 2009, p.40].

Additional source: San Francisco Chronicle

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Related legal cases

Coleman v. Schwarzenegger

Plata v. Schwarzenegger