Report indicates rise in number of preventable California prison deaths since 2006

Correctional officers stand watch over an inmate receiving treatment in the emergency room at California State Prison, Corcoran, in Corcoran, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009. A federal court-appointed receiver says the state needs to pay $8 billion to upgrade prison's medical and mental health care.
Correctional officers stand watch over an inmate receiving treatment in the emergency room at California State Prison, Corcoran, in Corcoran, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009. A federal court-appointed receiver says the state needs to pay $8 billion to upgrade prison's medical and mental health care. AP

A federal receiver in charge of California’s prison health care released a report Monday on inmate mortality. It says the inmate death rate has declined for a second year in a row. But as KPCC’s Julie Small reports, the number of deaths prison doctors might have prevented is up.

Updated Dec. 15, 7:15 a.m.

The report says that between 2006 and 2008, the death rate among California inmates declined 13 percent. But during that same period, the number of deaths that might have been prevented had doctors diagnosed and treated inmates rose from 44 to 66.

Clark Kelso, the federal receiver who spent billions of state dollars purging bad doctors from prisons and replacing them with more and better qualified ones, says it's not the doctors' fault.

"It’s not that we’ve got bad clinicians," Kelso said. "It’s that they’re working in a third world environment."

Kelso says there’s only so much those clinicians can do to improve care when prisons are packed to near double capacity, and when the clerks who file paper medical records are backlogged by months.
Kelso said the problem isn't that he lacks enough prison doctors somewhere, it's systemic failure.

"I don’t have health records anywhere. I have overcrowding everywhere. I don’t have facilitates anywhere," Kelso said.

The receiver’s review determines inmate deaths were preventable by noting when prison medical staff failed to follow correct procedures. Federal receiver Clark Kelso says one reason the number of preventable deaths is up since 2006 is that his office is doing a better job of identifying gross lapses in prison medical care.

One example from the report tells of an inmate who was diagnosed with asthma at one prison, then was transferred to a different prison. But the medical record that noted the asthma diagnosis didn’t go with him. The inmate had to wait two weeks to see a doctor at the new prison. On the day of his appointment, prison guards found the inmate “unresponsive” in his cell.

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