State to Spend Millions on Better Inmate Care

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Davis administration officials confirmed Tuesday that they have agreed to spend millions upgrading the medical care provided in state prisons, settling a lawsuit filed on behalf of the 157,000 Californians behind bars.

The class-action suit claimed that the state’s 33 prisons provide substandard care by ill-trained staff, inflicting cruel and unusual punishment in violation of inmates’ constitutional rights. It followed the deaths of eight female prisoners and persistent complaints dating back 15 years.

Department of Corrections officials said that in settling the case, they will save taxpayers money by sparing the state a lengthy court battle. They also acknowledged that despite their best efforts, deficiencies in care are a reality in the prison system.


“We recognize that there are some areas that need to be improved,” said corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton. “This agreement will give us the opportunity to fix these problems ourselves, using our own staff.”

The improvements will cost the state an extra $21 million next year. When fully phased in over seven years, the additional costs are projected at $122 million a year. The bulk of the new money will pay for nurses to evaluate ill inmates and determine which should promptly see a doctor.

Relatives of prisoners expressed hope that the agreement would make it easier for the incarcerated to get the treatment they need--when they need it.

“I hope this settlement will help prisoners so that no other mother has to suffer what I’ve been through--watching my son die from a curable illness,” said Mary Kelly, a high school teacher in Simi Valley.

Kelly’s son, James, who was serving a two-year drug sentence, died after medical staff at two prisons allegedly waited three months before treating him for an aggressive form of tongue cancer.

The agreement requires the state to follow a new model in treating sick inmates, one employing strict protocols and consistent follow-up. Thornton said each inmate would be assigned a primary care physician, rather than seeing a different doctor at every visit.


Attorneys for inmates said the new approach should address one of the biggest complaints--the state’s failure to monitor prisoners with chronic illnesses.

They said another important victory would change the way the state handles the transfer of sick inmates. In the past, ailing prisoners have been sent to new institutions without their charts, causing sometimes dangerous interruptions in their care.

“Often, these transferred prisoners would get lost in the shuffle, and their medical problems would escalate before anybody noticed,” said Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit advocacy group that filed the class-action suit. “We hope that won’t happen anymore.”

To ensure the new policies are working, the settlement mandates the creation of a team of internal auditors and a panel of outside medical experts who will be given access to the prisons, their medical records and staff.

“There are a lot of checks and balances built in, to make sure the state is making progress,” Specter said.

The settlement comes a week after the Department of Corrections was forced to defend its funding of an inmate’s heart transplant, a procedure that could cost taxpayers as much as $1 million. Officials said they were legally obligated to perform the operation, but it has sparked debate over how far the state should go in caring for sick prisoners--and whether a convict should receive a heart when many civilians are awaiting organs.


Specter said the transplant case is an isolated example with no bearing on the day-to-day care inmates receive.

“The fact is the medical care in our prisons is for the most part intolerable,” he said. “We are simply asking that prisoners have a reasonable chance of getting treatment that meets the minimum acceptable standards.”

The improvements will be phased in beginning in July, right about the time Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature will be wrestling over how to cope with a projected $12.5-billion budget shortfall. The new costs mandated by the settlement will be tacked on to the roughly $600 million the state already spends annually on inmate medical care.

Senate Leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) said any new budget item will be difficult for the state to bear this year, but added that “fighting it out in court until the end like [the administration] usually does is worse.

“If we were in the wrong, and it sure looks like we were, then the thing you do is spend the money and fix the problem,” Burton said.

The settlement was filed Tuesday with U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who must approve its terms before it can be made final. The lawsuit was filed last April.