California prison riddle far from solved

SACRAMENTO — How ever California meets a December deadline to ease prison crowding, the state's prison problems are far from over.

Federal judges in June warned California that they are wary of any temporary fix, and are likely soon to demand California also produce a long-term plan for its chronically overcrowded prisons. [See California's request for a 3-year delay in prison crowding caps.]

As well, inmate lawyers continue to press  for changes within the system, whatever its size.

Waiting lists for psychiatric services have gone down over the last decade, said Michael Bien, lead attorney for prisoners in a class-action lawsuit over inmate mental health care, one of two cases that led federal judges three years ago to try cap the prison population. However, he said, the quality of care inmates receive once they get into prison psychiatric units has worsened, and the inmate suicide rate continues to climb.

"The whole thing is topsy-turvy," Bien said.

Evidentiary hearings are scheduled in Sacramento next week to hear allegations that mentally ill inmates are subjected to excessive physical force and pepper-spraying, and that mentally ill prisoners on death row are neglected. California is seeking to prevent videotapes of those incidents from being aired in court.

Meanwhile, medical experts hired by the courts recently ruled that the healthcare in two prisons is so poor it remains unconstitutionally cruel, responsible for unnecessary deaths.