Governor, controller could face contempt charges over prison health care money

A federal judge has ordered California officials to pay $250 million next week to improve prison medical care. If they don't, the governor and the state controller could face contempt charges. KPCC's Julie Small reports the state's attorneys have vowed to fight the order.

Julie Small: U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ordered California officials to pay $250 million to the man in charge of improving prison medical care. Federal receiver Clark Kelso needs that money and an additional 8 billion to build new prison hospitals to provide care for chronically ill inmates. But Deputy Attorney General Daniel Powell says federal law prohibits the judge from ordering the state to pay to expand prisons.

Deputy Attorney General Daniel Powell: We think it's completely unprecedented to ask the state to give over $250 million now with a view toward $8 billion over the next few years.

Small: When Powell made that same argument in court, the judge shot back: the number of inmates dying in California prisons is also unprecedented. Judge Henderson was referring to a court investigators report that one inmate a week was dying unnecessarily.

That was three years ago. Henderson told state attorneys "we cannot afford any more delays." But Daniel Powell says the judge's statistics no longer hold.

Powell: The figures he's citing about prisoners dying is well before any of the many improvements that have happened to California's prison systems.

Small: The federal receiver has beefed up medical staff and fired incompetent doctors. And inmate deaths have declined. That's why Powell believes the receiver's $8 billion turnaround plan goes too far.

But the receiver's attorney, James Brosnahan, asserts the plan is modest considering some inmates still aren't getting the care they need.

James Brosnahan: When you die and you don't have a doctor, that's not too much. And there's been findings in this court that prisoners die. It's like a death penalty: you go there, you don't get medical care, and you die.

Small: James Brosnahan says it's too late for the state to back out of the prison turnaround plan – or to claim that the federal receiver hasn't revealed enough details about it. Brosnahan says that's pretty disingenuous considering Department of Correction officials helped develop the prison hospital construction plan and the governor supported a bill that would have paid for it.

Brosnahan: We need to smoke 'em out. We need to not tolerate that kind of obstruction. And that's what it is. They're obstructing the federal court.

Small: If the state fails to pay 250 million by November 5th, Judge Henderson will convene a contempt hearing. If the judge finds that the governor and state controller violated court orders, California may have to pay fines of $2 million a day.