SACRAMENTO — A court overseer has halted inmate patient admissions at California's newest prison amid reports that the sprawling medical facility is beset by problems, including the unanswered calls of a dying patient.
After meeting last week with corrections officials, Clark Kelso, the court-appointed medical receiver, ordered admissions stopped at the 6-month-old California Health Care Facility in Stockton and the opening of an adjacent 1,133-bed prison facility put on hold.
In a report to federal courts Friday, Kelso said the prison's inability to provide adequate medical and hygiene supplies and unsanitary conditions "likely contributed to an outbreak of scabies."
Kelso said the problems at the Stockton prison call into question California's ability to take responsibility for prison healthcare statewide. He accused corrections officials of treating the mounting healthcare problems "as a second-class priority."
An inspection team sent in by prisoners' lawyers in early January found that inmates had been left overnight in their feces, confined to broken wheelchairs or forced to go without shoes.
A shortage of towels forced prisoners to dry off with dirty socks, a shortage of soap halted showers for some inmates, and incontinent men were put into diapers and received catheters that did not fit, causing them to soil their clothes and beds, according to the inspection report and a separate finding by Kelso.
The inspectors also found that nurses failed to promptly answer call buttons in the prison's outpatient unit. Inmates told the inspectors of a bleeding prisoner on the unit who died Jan. 8 after nurses disregarded his repeated attempts to summon help.
A spokeswoman for the state corrections department attributed the decision to halt admissions to the complexities of opening a one-of-a-kind medical prison.
"It's not uncommon for new facilities to have stops and starts during the activation process," said Deborah Hoffman. "This facility is unique in its design, size and mission and is something that no other prison system has ever operated."
Hoffman said the corrections department is attempting to fix "bugs" in the Stockton prison's warehousing and supply chain, including sending a team last weekend to fill backlogged orders.
"We are working with the receiver's office to ensure we can begin accepting additional inmates in the very near future," she said.
An internal memo from the prison's warden and top medical officer Friday cited staffing shortages throughout the prison, including guards, and an inadequate numbers of nurses that resulted in "fragmented care."
The prison's nursing levels were set by Kelso's office. He has now hired a consultant to recommend changes.
A lawyer for state inmates said she was "shocked" by the conditions discovered during the January inspection, and questioned why the state as well as the court overseer put inmate patients into a hospital setting that was unable to care for them.
"If these are normal hiccups, [the corrections department] has to vastly and immediately change what is 'normal,'" said Rebekah Evenson with the Prison Law Office, which represents prisoners in class-action lawsuits that prompted the federal court orders. "The pain and suffering of these inmates is unconstitutional. These problems are of an extreme dimension."
The report said there were so few guards that a single officer watched 48 cells at a time and could not step away to use the bathroom. The prison relied on other inmates — also sick or disabled — to assist prisoners. One man in a wheelchair with emphysema said he had been assigned to push the wheelchair of another disabled inmate. Nurses told the inspectors they were "unclear" how soon they should answer call buttons.
The Stockton medical prison, the first of its kind in California, opened in July. A full load of 1,722 prisoners was promised by the end of December, a bid to help meet federal orders to reduce prison crowding elsewhere and bring inmate medical care up to constitutional standards.
Federal judges have found that conditions within California's prisons are unconstitutionally unsafe and put prison medical operations under the management of a receiver. The judges have deemed that overcrowding is at the root of those problems and given the state until April to reduce prison populations to within 137.5% of what they were built to hold.
State officials since January 2013 have attempted to persuade the courts that California is ready to regain control of its prison system.
"We are serious about the health and well-being of the inmates entrusted to us," corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said at the Stockton prison's dedication ceremony in June.
As of this week, the Stockton complex had 1,299 inmate patients, including half of the expected 1,622 long-term, high-risk patients it was designed to hold. Previous court filings show entire wings of the prison remain unopened because the state cannot hire enough staff, psychiatrists in particular.