Politics & Law

From humanity to health: Why can’t California get prison healthcare right?

Jonathan Simon

To considerable embarrassment, no doubt, in the Brown-Beard administration, admissions to California’s newest prison near Stockton California were halted Feb. 5 by the court-appointed healthcare receiver, law professor Clark Kelso.

The prison, the first new facility in a decade, is the lynch-pin of the administration’s frequent claim to have gotten on top of California’s decades old prison health care crisis.  The prison is the first of its kind to be purposely built to house and care for many of the state’s seriously ill prisoners, whose suffering in the grip of the state’s chronic overcrowding led the Supreme Court to describe the state’s system as unfit for a civilized society (see Brown v. Plata, 2011).

Under pressure to show that it can make progress in reducing that overcrowding, the administration is no doubt frustrated to have to halt adding inmates to the facility intended to hold nearly ,1800 prisoners at full capacity.

But Receiver Kelso’s order, and the report that accompanied it, raises more basic questions as to whether the State has yet drawn any lessons, from its decades of human-rights abuse,  about what it takes to operate prisons that respect human dignity as required by the Constitution (as well international human rights conventions to which the state is answerable through the courts of the United States).

So what went wrong in this brand new prison designed from the ground up to deliver health care?  Problems with the radiation-treatment equipment for cancer patients? Problems staffing the dialysis center? Actually the problems were a bit more basic.  As reported in the Sacramento Bee):

A shortage of towels forced prisoners to dry off with dirty socks; a shortage of soap halted showers for some inmates, and incontinent men were put into diapers and received catheters that did not fit, causing them to soil their clothes and beds, according to the inspection report and a separate finding by Kelso.
The report also said there were so few guards that a single officer watched 48 cells at a time and could not step away to use the bathroom.
Kelso said the problems at the facility call into question California’s ability to take responsibility for prison health care statewide. He accused corrections officials of treating the mounting health care problems as a second-class priority, the newspaper said.

Spokes persons for the administration described the situation as a normal glitch associated with the rolling out of a new facility.  Perhaps. But it also looks like business as usual in a system where medical neglect of chronically ill prisoners went on for decades under the deliberate indifference of prison administrators and governors.

Rather than apologize to the citizens of this state and seek to make amends to the prisoners, former prisoners, and correctional workers forced to experience and participate in those degrading conditions, the administration has continued with smugness to defend the status quo, with an attitude that borders on contempt to the courts.

Is it surprising that actors never held to account for their human-rights violations cannot create conditions that respect human rights? Good healthcare takes medical professionals and modern infrastructure, which appear to be still lacking to a significant degree even in this brand new purpose built “Health Care Facility.”

But healthcare also takes humanity.

A prison system that can’t get that right, can ‘t run its healthcare system and shouldn’t be allowed to continue to operate prisons on which the good name of the people of California is stamped.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

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Comments to "From humanity to health: Why can’t California get prison healthcare right?":
    • Brian K. Wanerman

      The situation is even worse than described in professor Simon’s article. It’s not just lack of soap and towels. A recent report in the Los Angeles Times cites incidents of inmates forced to go without shoes, confined to broken wheelchairs, and left overnight in their own feces. In addition, it reports an incident of a bleeding inmate who died when his repeated requests for help were ignored.

      I’ve been to the Stockton Health Care Facility representing inmates there. I have to admit, it looks very impressive. But, after reading of the recent problems there, its apparent that looks are the only thing impressive about it. It’s also apparent that it is nothing but window dressing that won’t do a thing to stanch the gaping wound that is the State’s prison healthcare system.

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    • boo

      “smugness to defend the status quo”; those who are in management or within the union structure for years do honestly believe they know what is best even in the face of the obvious. Having worked in the prison healthcare for a few months, I can attest to the failure of administrators (including Kelso) to respond to staff concerns regarding the quality of healthcare.

      Administrators, we are talking high paid PhD’s and MD’s, are deeply rooted in not only their own delusions of grandeur, but in pleasing the security/prison staff to the degree of compromising the health and safety of inmates, as well as staff. This group of administrators do not function from best healthcare practices, nor quality oriented outcomes, but personal career politics, laziness and a significant lack of skill and knowledge about what to do.

      Mr. Kelso is not responsive internal to the corrections department staff; he, and the receivership staff, are engrained within the prison healthcare hierarchy; they seem to use these exercises to dispel community, staff and inmate restlessness (public relations) than to approach change with integrity and honesty.

      After 20 years of working in healthcare, the experience of being in CA prison healthcare was my first ride into oblivion, a place that words or stories cannot describe, a place of harsh realities; where the human potential for violence is met with silent appreciation.

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    • Prison Reform Movement

      It’s much more than embarrassment – we can no longer say that CDCR is not corrupt. There is no humanity, no compassion and certainly no empathy.

      I am beyond disgusted and I hope the 3-judge panel slams Gov. Brown and CDCR by placing the entire system under federal oversight. More than 20 years and Plata-Coleman and CDCR still cannot get it right? Not even a slight improvement?

      What really gets me, is why aren’t the taxpayers up in arms? I know that answer; sadly it is because there is no feelings for people in prison.

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