Prison healthcare issue goes before federal court

A federal court in San Francisco is considering today whether to force California to direct $8 billion toward prison medical care. KPCC's Julie Small reports this is the latest twist in a nearly decade-long fight over what quality of medical care the U.S. Constitution guarantees for California inmates and what the state's willing to pay for.

Julie Small: The federal receiver in charge of overhauling the state's dilapidated prison medical care, Clark Kelso, wants the $8 billion to build new hospitals in prisons and upgrade old ones. He says that would address the central problem in California's prisons.

Inmates are still dying from a lack of access to care. But state lawmakers have four times defeated bills that would have paid for improvements. An exasperated Kelso recently attempted an end-run around the vote in U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson's court.

Clark Kelso: Unless we're able to improve those facilities and expand the health care facilities in particular, we simply aren't going to be able to bring the health care within the prisons up to a constitutional level cost effectively.

Small: Kelso asked Judge Henderson to hold Governor Schwarzenegger and State Controller John Chiang in contempt of court for failing to bankroll upgrades in prison medical care. Kelso wants the judge to fine California $2 million for every day the state delays. State Attorney General Jerry Brown has challenged the motion. His spokeswoman, Christine Gasparac, says Brown wants full disclosure of the prison construction plan.

Christine Gasparac: Before we release that $8 billion, the public really needs to see what they're spending their money on.

Small: Gasparac says the attorney general wants to know that the plan meets the U.S. Constitution's minimum standards for prison medical care without going overboard.

Gasparac: We don't want it to be a Cadillac plan, paid for by the taxpayers, that goes above and beyond what you or I have access to, you know, when we go for health care.

Small: To protect prison staff, the court sealed part of the plan, but the attorney general believes it can reveal most of the prison construction plan without jeopardizing employee safety.

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