Federal judge orders California to pay for prison health care

A federal judge Wednesday ordered California officials to come up with plan to pay $250 million for improvements to prison medical care. This order is an interim step. KPCC's Julie Small reports the next step could be swift and expensive.

Julie Small: U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson ordered state officials to present a plan that will "explicitly explain how and when" California will pay $250 million for fixing prison medical care. That money will go to federal receiver Clark Kelso. If Kelso gets his way, the cash will be the first installment in an $8 billion program to build new prison hospitals and renovate existing ones.

Clark Kelso: All state officials, including the attorney general, really just need to come to grips with the fact that this is what is constitutionally required. The state has underinvested systemically for decades in its prison system, and the bill is coming due now.

Small: Judge Henderson signed off on the federal receiver's construction plan, but four times, state lawmakers defeated a bill to pay for it. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and State Controller John Chiang said they couldn't fund the plan without legislative approval or a court order. So Kelso asked the judge to order these state officials to pay up, and if they refuse, to hold them in contempt. Earlier this week, Attorney General Jerry Brown said he'd fight that.

Attorney General Jerry Brown: At a time when the schools are short of money, when the state has to go the federal government to get a bailout of billions of dollars, it's inappropriate, it's not constitutional, and as attorney general, we're going to fight it every step of the way, even to the United States Supreme Court.

Small: Judge Henderson chose "an intermediate step." He wants to see a payment plan from the state before he starts issuing contempt citations. But Henderson also approved Kelso's request to take depositions from the governor's finance officials on how the state could pay the additional $8 billion for prison hospitals. If Judge Henderson orders California to pay the full 8 billion, Attorney General Jerry Brown says he plans to appeal.