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AP California News

Jul 21, 7:49 PM EDT

Official: State can send inmates to medical site

AP Photo
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- California can once again send sick inmates to an $839 million prison medical complex that was closed earlier this year amid staffing, supply and other problems at the site intended to help end years of federal court oversight, an overseer said Monday.

J. Clark Kelso, a court-appointed official who controls prison medical care, said he was pleased that most problems have been corrected at the California Health Care Facility in Stockton and his office will keep monitoring the facility to make sure progress continues.

The facility opened in July 2013 with Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard saying the state's investment should prove to federal judges that California is serious about improving its care of physically and mentally ill inmates.

Previous conditions were so poor that federal judges demanded a drastic and ongoing reduction of the prison population.

Kelso abruptly halted admissions in January while citing serious, systemic issues.

He said in a January report to the federal judge overseeing prison medical care that one of the biggest problems was the inability to provide adequate medical and personal hygiene supplies to housing units.

He also cited other problems, including failure to provide nursing staff with appropriate keys to cells and other spaces, inadequate clinical staffing, and a variety of failures to provide appropriate accommodations for inmates with disabilities.

Kelso said an outbreak of scabies likely resulted from inadequate hygiene supplies.

Supplies are now readily available and the facility has increased staff and training, he said.

Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office in Berkeley, said conditions are much better but more work is needed.

"I don't think there's any disagreement that Stockton is not functioning as it's supposed to. There are still substantial improvements that need to be made," said Specter, whose firm successfully sued the state over poor prison medical care.

One of Specter's fellow lawyers toured the facility last week and reported finding that medical records were difficult to review; there was a delay in processing inmates' complaints; and employees were still drafting policies and procedures to solve some of the ongoing problems. Specter said his firm will watch inmates' care to see if the additional admissions make things worse.

The halt in admissions derailed the state's ability to meet its first court-ordered target of June for reducing prison crowding.

State officials had counted on the 2,951 beds in the medical complex and a recently opened $177 million annex as they moved to reduce the overall population of the state's 34 adult prisons. However, a panel of three judges ruled that they could only count about half of the Stockton beds until Kelso allowed admissions to resume.

The state now has until Aug. 31 to meet the initial deadline and until February 2016 to further reduce crowding as a way to improve the care of physically and mentally ill inmates under court orders upheld twice by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gov. Jerry Brown included $12.4 million in this fiscal year's budget to help correct problems at the Stockton facility. That includes hiring 106 additional employees, including 77 guards.

The facility currently employs about 2,500 medical staff and guards. A consultant recently recommended that the receiver add more than 400 doctors, nurses, medical and psychiatric technicians and other medical staff.

Some of those additional employees have already been hired. Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the receiver, said it is unclear how many more employees will be transferred from other prison medical facilities and how many will have to be hired.

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