Government & Politics
3:04 pm
Thu October 25, 2012

Prison System Set for First Step to End Federal Oversight

Credit Casey Christie / The Californian / Reporting on Health Collaborative

California officials will take charge tomorrow of opening the nation’s largest prison medical facility. They have to meet a deadline of July of next year. As KPCC’s Julie Small reports, how well they accomplish the task will determine how soon a federal judge will end his oversight of prison medical care.

A federal judge seized control of California’s prison healthcare seven years ago—because one inmate a week was dying from neglect. The judge appointed a federal receiver, Clark Kelso, to fix the failing system. Kelso says opening the new facility in Stockton is a critical step—and delegating the task to California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will test its resolve to reach a higher standard of care.

“We’re going to find out: Can CDCR hire 2000 people, do all the procurements that have to get done, actually get people moved in, do the training, get all the supervisors in place, get all the written local policies done. There’s a lot that has to get done,” says Kelso.

The 144-acre medical hub will house 17-hundred inmates too sick to live in regular prisons. Those inmates, who require 24-hour care, are crowding out others who need lower levels of medical attention. Some of them end up being sent to outside hospitals—at a cost of up to 15-hundred dollars a day for the state.

Don Specter is an attorney with the Prison Law Office, which sued the state to improve medical care for inmates. He says letting the Corrections department handle the start-up of the Stockton facility will be a good measure of its ability to manage a complex and large operation.

“Just as importantly, it directly affects the lives and well being of tens of thousands of prisoners, and if it’s done wrong, we’ve seen from history that many prisoners will die of malpractice and neglect,” says Specter.

If the Department of Corrections successfully opens the Stockton facility, the federal receiver will give more control of prison health care back to the state. Kelso says a good way to measure the state’s performance is whether they meet multiple deadlines to open the facility on time.

“You were able to bring on 500 employees by this date, or not. And if you lose a day, the rest of your schedule slips," says Kelso.

The Corrections department will also manage renovation of the adjacent Dewitt facility in Stockton, and $750 million in renovations for medical clinics at prisons.

A spokesman for the Department of Corrections declined to comment for this story. The Secretary of Corrections has for many years maintained that California’s prisons already provide good healthcare to inmates, and that the state’s ready to resume control.