Reporting from Sacramento -- Federal oversight of prison healthcare in California is nearing an end, a judge said Tuesday, six years after he ruled that abysmal medical conditions were contributing to an inmate death every week.
U.S. District Court Judge Thelton E. Henderson said Tuesday that healthcare in state lockups has improved significantly since he seized control of the system, a move that has cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
"While some critical work remains outstanding — most notably on construction issues — it is clear that many of the goals of the receivership have been accomplished," Henderson wrote in a three-page order.
State officials were rebuffed when they sought to end the receivership in 2009. On Tuesday, Gov. Jerry Brown applauded the judge's decision.
"We have been working very hard to clean up the mess in the prisons and I appreciate the judicial recognition of our efforts," the governor said in a statement.
Henderson directed state officials, receiver J. Clark Kelso and an inmate advocacy group that sued the state over prison conditions to meet and file a report by April 30, spelling out how to go forward. The parties will have to determine how progress will be measured, sustained and monitored, according to Henderson's order.
Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in a statement that "the department is ready and willing to start planning for the end of federal oversight of prison medical care."
Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, the inmate advocacy group, warned that progress could be fleeting.
"I'm very worried about the state backsliding, especially in times when money is tight," he said.
Specter pointed to a court case involving San Quentin Correctional Facility in the 1980s. Medical conditions eventually improved, he said, but problems arose again after the case was dismissed.
In addition, Specter said medical care in some prisons remains poor despite improvements, and he criticized the state for stalling the construction of new facilities.
Henderson said in his order that the end of receivership won't mean the end of monitoring. He wrote that he expects there will be a "period of oversight" to make sure the prison system can "sustain the progress that has been and will be achieved."
In 2006, Henderson ruled that medical conditions in California prisons were so poor that they violated inmates' constitutional rights. Improvements came slowly, however, and the judge fired the first receiver he put in place to revamp the system.
Three years later, Henderson rejected the state's effort to end receivership, saying he had "no confidence that such improvements would continue, or even be maintained, in the absence of the receivership."