Skirmish over state prison yoga rooms intensifies


The battle over California prison inmates’ constitutional rights has come down to this: finger-pointing over who dreamed up the idea of giving convicted criminals taxpayer-funded bingo and yoga rooms.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown have lambasted efforts by J. Clark Kelso, the court-appointed overseer of prison healthcare, to spend $8 billion on a “gold-plated utopian hospital plan” for 10,000 inmates. It features a “holistic” environment with natural light and space for yoga, music, horticulture and art therapy.

On Tuesday, Kelso fired back, saying that the facilities are meant for mentally ill inmates, and that he had simply followed the state’s example for treating them. The evidence? Sexual predators forced to live at Coalinga State Hospital, which opened on Schwarzenegger’s watch, have access to an electronic bingo board, a state-of-the-art gymnasium with a rubberized floor, a weight room and eight landscaped atriums.


Kelso showed reporters enlarged images of the hospital from the state Department of Mental Health’s website.

“They are criticizing their own treatment program,” he said. “It does remind me of the poem, ‘I shot an arrow up into the air, it fell to Earth I know not where.’ Well, the arrow this time is falling on the state’s own Coalinga State Hospital, opened by the Schwarzenegger administration in 2005.”

On Tuesday, Brown said the facilities at Coalinga are not comparable to Kelso’s proposal because the sexual predators had finished their prison terms and were now confined under the state’s civil commitment law.

“The bar is much higher in that case, because they’re being deprived of their liberty outside the criminal law,” Brown said. “It’s a totally separate legal situation.”

He said he could not comment on whether sex offenders need a bingo board, and called Kelso’s appeal to the media “unseemly” and political.

Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the Department of Mental Health, said that the Coalinga design was based on a federal court settlement on constitutional standards for treatment of the mentally ill in institutions, and that social-skill development, vocational training and physical activities dramatically reduce aggressive behavior.

The back-and-forth comes as the state chafes against court control of its prison medical care, seized in 2006 by U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson, who said the system was so poor that inmates were dying unnecessarily. Henderson also sits on a three-judge panel now weighing whether to order the state to reduce prison overcrowding.

Matt Cate, Schwarzenegger’s corrections secretary, said the administration believes inmates need treatment, but not on the scale envisioned by Kelso.

“We don’t need a treatment room and a yoga room and a music room and a basketball court,” he said. “We need to get those inmates better so they can return” to the general prison population.

A week ago, state officials filed a motion urging Henderson to abolish the receivership, saying Kelso’s construction proposal -- Brown called it “this $8-billion boondoggle, this gold-plated utopian hospital plan” that is better than average Californians get -- would amount to an illegal court order to build prisons, and that it was an excessive use of federal power. And, they said, prison healthcare has improved.

“The receiver will never get that money,” Schwarzenegger said last week. “It’s outrageous, when we are seeing that programs for kids are being cut and where we have to make severe cuts in education and in healthcare . . . to have someone out there by himself running around with an $8-billion project.”

At the Tuesday news conference, the receiver said he was scaling back his plans, reducing the size of the proposed facilities. But he said he did not think the features at Coalinga -- or the ones he had proposed -- were bad ideas.

“I’d rather have inmates sitting in a small, relatively empty room practicing yoga than engaging in race riots or gang violence,” Kelso said. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that’s what can happen when you have overcrowded conditions and don’t provide medical care.”