Crime & Justice

Federal judge lays out plan to return control of state prisons to California

Federal Judge Thelton Henderson wants to return control of California's prison medical systems to the state — slowly, but surely.
Federal Judge Thelton Henderson wants to return control of California's prison medical systems to the state — slowly, but surely.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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A federal judge proposed a plan Wednesday to relinquish control of California’s prison medical care after nearly seven years. U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson seized control of the system because one inmate a week was dying from inadequate treatment. Henderson appointed a federal receiver to improve conditions, which the receiver did.

Now, Henderson says he wants state officials to prove they can implement and sustain the receiver's changes before he lets go of the system.

Prison officials had argued they’re ready to resume control of health care within a month, but Henderson said he sees "no sufficient evidence” to back up that claim. Instead, the judge wants a gradual transition of authority from the federal court to the state.

"Although we believe that the receivership is no longer necessary," said Jeffrey Callison of the state Department of Corrections, "we are encouraged that the court is directing the receiver to start returning health care authority back to the state of California."

Judge Henderson has proposed that the receiver return control of the health care system one piece at a time. He has already returned provisional control over the escorts who take prisoners to their appointments, and future steps would include returning control over hiring staff, managing medicines and, ultimately, the prison budget.

How well prison officials handle each step will determine how quickly the rest of the transition goes.

“If someone’s been found to be guilty of neglect and malfeasance, for decades, you don’t just say ‘OK we trust you. Go for it!’” says Don Spector, an attorney with the Prison Law Office. Spector sued on behalf of inmates who did not receive timely care. He likes Judge Henderson’s plan.

"It’s kind of like getting off parole," he said. "They have to show that they’ve been rehabilitated and now know what they’re doing and can handle the extra responsibilities."

Henderson also wants to protect changes the receiver made, including stricter oversight and improved rules for continuity of care. To make sure that happens, the judge ordered the state to write the receiver’s changes into law.

In a written statement, receiver Clark Kelso said there's no set timeline to end the receivership.

“We have come a long way in improving medical care while also reducing expenses" Kelso wrote. "The period of transition we are entering is essential to ensuring the state is able to sustain an adequate health care system within the prisons.”