California prison officials on Tuesday dedicated a new 200-acre facility in Stockton designed to improve treatment for 1,700 of the state’s inmates who require ongoing medical care.
Warden Ron Rackley asked hundreds of prison officials, politicians and press at the opening ceremony to stand for the inaugural raising of the flags at the California Health Care Facility while a bugler played "To the Colors."
It was a moment of celebration for prison officials in an otherwise grim month when a succession of legal decisions haven't gone their way. Just last week a three-judge court ordered the state to release 9,600 inmates by the end of the year to relieve overcrowding. Those judges say that’s the only way to ensure inmates get adequate healthcare.
But Secretary of Corrections Jeff Beard says California is already providing good care and should be allowed to regain full control of the prison system.
"We believe that we’re ready to do that," Beard said. "We believe this facility will help us even further show that we’re ready to do that. My hope would be that this maybe would be the day that maybe things start going in a more positive direction."
The first inmates are scheduled to arrive at the Stockton facility in late July — and not a moment too soon. On Monday, a U.S. District Judge in San Francisco gave the state three months to transfer thousands of inmates who are susceptible to Valley Fever out of two prisons where the deadly fungal infection is rife.
That same day, in a related action, a federal judge in Sacramento said he’d investigate understaffing at psychiatric care units for prisoners run by the Department of State Hospitals. Six thousand inmates receive treatment at those units But this year some of the staff psychiatrists have complained of heavy caseloads.
Staffing was the focus of a five-day hearing before U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton as part of decades-old lawsuit that’s forced the state to improve psychiatric care for California prisoners.
Psychiatrist Joel Badeaux said that when he went to work at the Salinas Valley Psychiatric Program, he was given 40 patients to manage. Then, three psychiatrists quit in rapid succession.
"So all of a sudden I was alone, brand new, with 60 patients," Badeux recounted after the hearing. "And then my colleague across the hall, he had sixty. We didn’t feel we could safely take care of that many patients with the number of psychiatrists we had."
Officials with the Department of State Hospitals dismissed the notion of staffing problems at their facilities.
At the hearing, Chief Deputy Director Kathryn Radkey-Gaither testified that “many of the staff leave for normal reasons.” When that happens, she said, the department will “borrow staff from other facilities" or hire contract psychiatrists to temporarily fill the vacancies.
Radkey-Gaither said while psychiatrists’ patient loads increased last year as part of budget cuts, the increase — from 25 prisoners to 35 — does not compromise care.
But Michael Bien, an attorney for inmates, said there’s evidence to the contrary. Another group of psychiatrists — employed at Atascadero State Hospital — complained to state officials in April that staff shortages threatened inmate care and created dangerous working conditions.
"When you have the psychiatrists going public and saying we’re understaffed, and in the same period you have two deaths, then maybe the psychiatrists who work there are right," Bien said. "They pulled too much out of that program."
In November, 2012 an inmate hung himself in his cell after waiting for weeks to be admitted to the Salinas Valley program. Another inmate at the facility died in March of this year from drinking too much water. The man suffered from a psychological condition that creates an unquenchable thirst. One psychiatric expert testified that a death from that condition was "100 percent preventable."
Karlton said he'd soon rule in favor of the attorneys for inmates, but he wasn't sure yet what kind of relief he'd grant. He may ask the special master who monitors psychiatric care in the prisons to investigate staffing ratios and the Department of State Hospitals filings with the court. During testimony Radkey-Gaither admitted the reports did not accurately capture data on staff position.
To which Karlton replied: "I'm just a little bit distressed that nobody has bothered to tell this court that the reports I rely on to make all my decisions are inaccurate."