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State's prison overseer blasts CA officials for stalling reforms

Prisoners at the California Institution for Men in Chino line up, waiting for medical appointments.
Prisoners at the California Institution for Men in Chino line up, waiting for medical appointments.
Mike Roe/KPCC

The federal receiver in charge of medical care in California’s 33 prisons says state officials have dug in and are resisting mandated reforms.  

In a report filed in U.S. District Court late Wednesday, Clark Kelso said state officials have changed their tone “from acquiescence bordering on support for the Receiver’s work, to opposition bordering on contempt.”

Kelso cited the state's refusal last month to follow his directive to immediately transfer vulnerable inmates from prisons where Valley Fever has proliferated.

Deborah Hoffman with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's called the receiver's report, "less about the health of inmates and more about shifting blame."

The Department, she said, has been "working cooperatively with the Receiver to combat Valley Fever in California prisons for a long time."

But Kelso's report described the state's resistance as far broader than the recent tussle over Valley Fever, and its contempt, he said, extends to the three-judge court that ordered the state  to ease overcrowding in the prisons so that medical improvements could be effective:  “It appears that population reduction as an approved State policy has come to an abrupt end.” 

 In 2009, three federal judges determined that inmates could only get adequate medical and mental health care if the state reduced the density of the population.  At the time prisons had nearly double the number of prisoners they were designed to hold. The court ordered California to reduce the crowding to 137.5 percent of capacity.

After the U.S. Supreme Court denied the state’s appeal of that order in 2011, California state lawmakers enacted realignment to achieve the reductions.  The law diverts newly-convicted low-level felons from state prisons to county lockups.  The change has resulted in 25,000 fewer inmates in the prisons — but it's still short of the court’s order by roughly 10,000 inmates.

In January of this year, Governor Jerry Brown filed a motion to vacate the order and refused to make further reductions. The judges denied that motion in April.

The receiver, who has largely stayed out of the legal fray over the prison population cap, took the unprecedented step of making suggestions on how the administration could achieve the final reductions without the legislature’s approval.

The federal court, he said, could waive parts of the penal code that require inmates to serve their entire sentences in a state prison.  Doing that, Kelso reasoned would empower prison officials to use many of the reduction methods they’ve said would require the legislature’s approval. Those include increasing good-time credits that reduce the length of inmate sentences, or adding more inmates to alternative custody programs where they serve the final six months of their sentences at home monitored by parole agents.