Medical care inside California's state prisonsA special report by KPCC's Julie Small
Prison Medical Photos
A decade ago, medical care at California’s state prisons was worse than bad – it was deadly. Attorneys at the Prison Law Office successfully sued the Department of Corrections for violating inmates' constitutional rights to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment (Plata v. Schwarzenegger).
In a 2002 consent decree, California's Department of Corrections agreed to implement new medical care policies and procedures at all state prisons.
But in 2005 it was clear the department had failed to make those improvements.
A court investigation of inmate deaths found that one inmate a week was dying as a result of misdiagnosis, delayed or shoddy treatment or no treatment at all. The findings prompted Judge Thelton Henderson to take the unprecedented step of appointing a federal receiver to run California's prison medical care.
The federal receiver, Robert Sillen, began work in April of 2006. (In 2008 Henderson replaced Sillen with Clark Kelso.) Sillen determined that problems in prison medical care were so innumerable it would take at least a decade and untold billions to fix them.
But only a year later, California officials – including the Secretary of Corrections Mathew Cate, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown – claimed that medical care for inmates had reached an acceptable standard. They say it’s time to put California back in charge of it.
Credit: California Legislative Analyst's Office
About the Series
Over a year, KPCC’s Julie Small interviewed state officials, prison medical experts, prison volunteers, inmates and their families, corrections officials and medical staff to determine if the quality of medical care in California's prisons is, as officials claim, "fixed." This investigation found:
- While the overall number of deaths of inmates decreased, the number of inmates whose deaths might have been prevented with better care actually increased.
- Independent reviews of medical facilities conducted by California's inspector general for prisons reveal that California's prisons routinely violate medical policies and protocols, leading to delays and denials of treatment for inmates.
- California officials' repeated refusal to fund the receiver's turnaround plan has delayed construction of sanitary medical facilities, computerization of health records and hiring independent executives to oversee medical care at prisons.
- The lack of infrastructure improvements and systemic change contributes to lapses in care for inmates that range from dangerous to deadly.
Over five days beginning Monday, Aug. 23, 2010, KPCC reveals its findings on-air and online.
- Federal Receiver’s California Prison Health Care Services
- California’s Office of the Inspector General for Prisons - Medical inspection results
- Prison Law Office
- Don Spector’s law journal article on California’s prisons, "Everything Revolves Around Overcrowding: The State of California's Prisons" (PDF)
- U.S. District Court of Northern California - Plata v. Schwarzenegger court documents
- Legislative Analyst Office’s “Overview of Adult Correctional Health Care Spending”
- California Correctional Medicine Consultation Network
- Correctional Medicine Consultation Network: "Prison 911: Avenal"
Julie Small's reporting on the California prison medical system was undertaken as part of a health journalism program offered through The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. Hear Julie talk about the project on the fellowship Blogtalk radio chat.