Judge backs continued role of prison receiver in California

Legal News Line Mar. 25, 2009, 8:37am

Jerry Brown (D)

SAN FRANCISCO - The legal clash between California and a federal judge determined to protect the health of inmates in the state's prison system continued on Tuesday, with California again on the losing side.

U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson rejected the appeal by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown to end the receivership and return control of the prison system to the state.

Henderson said he has no confidence in the state to continue progress made under the prison receiver he appointed in 2006. Though the judge said federal management of the prisons is not a long-term solution, he will not allow it to end until the state proves it can adequately care for the health and well-being of the more than 150,000 inmates currently within the system.

Henderson first appointed Kelso after a class-action lawsuit, Plata v. Schwarzenegger, determined California inmates were receiving inadequate care that amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

Kelso was supposed to be given $250 million last year to begin an $8 billion revamping of the prisons medical care, which included the construction of seven new prison health care facilities - seven million square feet of construction - in addition to renovations at each of the 33 existing state prisons.

When California refused to make the payment, Kelso asked Henderson to compel the state to pay up. Brown first sought to block the payment in court, and then asked Henderson to terminate the receivership.

Brown wrote recently that "the prison health czar believes he is wholly immune for the harsh realities of the state budget." He called Kelso's plan "wildly excessive" and far too expensive to operate annually.

In other legal battles between the state and the federal courts, a three-judge panel that includes Henderson ruled that overcrowded prisons must release as many as 50,000 prisoners - up to one-third of those currently incarcerated - within two years, a decision Schwarzenegger plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Kelso issued a statement in response to the latest ruling that he plans to work "collaboratively with state officials and agencies to achieve our shared goal of improving prison medical and health care to constitutional levels."

Brown said he would appeal.

"The federal receivership has become its own autonomous government operating outside the normal checks and balances of state and federal law," he said in a statement. "It is time for a dose of fiscal common sense."

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