California may have to pay $8 billion for prison health care

Today, the governor will convene a special meeting with California's legislative leaders to deal with the state government's latest financial crisis. Frozen credit markets have made it tough for California to borrow cash to pay its bills. On top of that, California might have to scrape together $8 billion to pay for better prison medical care. KPCC's Julie Small was in court in San Francisco this week when a federal judge signaled that he's ready to tell the state to find that money now.

Julie Small: U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson has already signed off on a massive plan to build new prison hospitals and renovate prison clinics. That plan was drawn up by Clark Kelso, the federal receiver Judge Henderson put in charge of prison medical care. Kelso says the plan will cost the state $8 billion, and he needs that money now.

Clark Kelso: I need to know it's there in order to enter contracts with folks who depend upon knowing that they're going to get paid at the beginning of the contract, in the middle, and at the end.

Small: Four times, the legislature defeated bills to pay for construction, so Kelso filed a motion with Judge Henderson to hold the governor and state controller in contempt. He says he's done talking.

Kelso: I've spent the better part of this year trying to work with the state. We're in court now.

Small: Federal receiver Clark Kelso also hired a nationally renowned trial lawyer to handle the contempt order. Attorney Jim Brosnahan says he wants the state to pay an initial $250 million that lawmakers approved last year.

Jim Brosnahan: They will have two weeks to come back and tell us exactly how they're going to do that, and when they're going to do it. Not whether they're going to do it, that they're going to do it.

Small: And if they don't, Brosnahan has asked the judge to hold state officials in contempt, and he wants to fine the state government $2 million every day it doesn't pay up.

Brosnahan: How serious are we about it? Totally serious. OK?

Small: Not OK, says State Attorney General Jerry Brown.

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 made it clear that Jerry Brown will get his fight. He reminded attorneys for the state of California that it's been six years since the judge ruled that prison medical care was inadequate, a ruling based on evidence that poor medical conditions were killing one inmate a week. Judge Henderson says since then, the state has shown an "utter and complete inability to stop the dying."

That's why he appointed a federal receiver to take charge of prison medical care, and why he approved the receiver's wide-ranging plan to bring prison medical care up to standards. But Attorney General Brown contends the plan goes too far. He points out that the state has already hired more doctors and nurses.

Brown: We feel the medical care is getting better, and we're meeting constitutional standards, and in any event, the receiver has not proved that we haven't.

Small: Judge Henderson showed little patience with that argument. He said while fewer inmates die from botched medical care, that's no reason to slow down now. Henderson said he considers this case his most important work in 28 years on the bench, and he said the only reason he hasn't retired is to make sure California does what he expects it to do to prevent more needless inmate deaths.