A federal judge on Friday rejected Gov. Jerry Brown’s claim that California has improved inmate care enough to end 17 years of court oversight of its less-crowded prisons.
Brown has vowed to challenge any such rejection, if need be, before the same U.S. Supreme Court that less than two years ago deemed California prison conditions shocking.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton’s decision is a blow to Brown’s larger ambition to remove court caps on prison crowding and end court control over a $1.6-billion prison medical program. It came as little surprise.
In open court two weeks ago, the senior jurist voiced consternation over California’s failure to warn it had since October 2011 been building a case to end oversight of inmate mental health care. Brown’s surprise motion in January to terminate that case triggered a 90-day ruling under federal law. That left prisoners’ rights lawyers with roughly 10 weeks to hire experts, tour prisons and build their opposing case, and Karlton a matter of weeks to weigh thousands of pages of contradictory depositions and legal arguments without the chance to hold a trial.
Lawyers representing about 33,700 California prisoners requiring mental health care contend serious shortfalls in care remain, evidenced by staff shortages in some psychiatric wards, the housing of mentally ill inmates in isolation cells and a climbing prison suicide rate.
California presented reports from a team of experts, including one who became Brown’s current secretary of corrections, who contend conditions, while imperfect, now meet the minimum adequate care required under the U.S. Constitution and continue to improve.
Documents filed in the case shed light on the Brown administration’s thinking -- that California was saddled with a judge who “hated” the state and battles it couldn’t win with a court-appointed special master over 120 detailed aspects of care, on top of a $7-million yearly bill to fund that scrutiny by court and legal monitors. The state has been fighting the court case since 1990.
Those records included a five-page December 2011 strategy memo written by Jeffrey Beard, the retired chief of Pennsylvania prisons. In it, Beard told state lawyers he believed California was close to making the case the state met six basic measures of care. A year later, Brown named Beard as his new corrections chief.