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Schwarzenegger Risks Contempt On Prison Reform

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Schwarzenegger Risks Contempt On Prison Reform

Law

Schwarzenegger Risks Contempt On Prison Reform

Schwarzenegger Risks Contempt On Prison Reform

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Inmates at the Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, Calif., were living in a modified gymnasium when this photo was taken in August 2007. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images hide caption

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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Inmates at the Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, Calif., were living in a modified gymnasium when this photo was taken in August 2007.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California is facing a major fiscal crisis.

On Thursday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that the state needs more than $8 billion in spending cuts and new taxes. And on Friday, a federal judge may start contempt of court hearings against the governor and state controller for not turning over millions of dollars to improve prison health care.

State officials had until this week to hand over the first installment of an estimated $8 billion needed to bring California's dysfunctional system up to federal standards. They have refused to pay.

Two years ago, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson took oversight of California's prison medical system away from the state. In a hearing at the time, he said one inmate a week was dying in California prisons as a result of neglect or incompetence.

Court reports from that hearing detailed cramped, antiquated and unsanitary conditions at San Quentin State Prison: medical exam rooms with no sinks and no alcohol. But a new medical building is under construction.

"It will be a 55-bed facility, which will take the place of the facility that we're currently utilizing," says Samuel Robinson, the prison's public information official.

Robinson says there are many changes at San Quentin designed to bring it up to federal constitutional levels of care. But the problem is that the prison just north of San Francisco is the only one of the state's 33 prisons where anything like this is happening.

In January, Henderson appointed Clark Kelso as receiver to oversee medical care in California's prisons. Kelso says there has been progress at San Quentin, and that improvements have been made system-wide, such as filling medical staff vacancies.

He says much work still needs to be done — and that he needs $8 billion to do it.

"I'm building essentially nursing homes for 10,000 prisoners," Kelso said. "This is not a fancy, expensive hospital we're looking at. The reason the dollars are so high is because the number of patients is that high."

But the idea that a federal court is demanding that California cough up $8 billion for prisoners' health care in the midst of a state and national economic crisis has rankled some people.

"We'd have to take it from schoolchildren, or from the university, or from the highway patrol," said state Attorney General Jerry Brown. "We have to take it from somebody — it's not there."

Brown, who is representing the state, has refused to hand over the money. He says the court receiver hasn't proved why so much money is needed when the state has already increased spending on prison health.

"I guess the receiver, who is totally in charge, is saying we're not making any progress," Brown said. "Well, how can you not make progress when you're paying more than the cost of health care on the outside?"

Brown is demanding specific construction plans so state officials can determine whether they comply with a federal law that allows judges to order only the minimum improvements needed to protect prisoners' constitutional rights.

But those plans were drawn up with state officials — and Gov. Schwarzenegger has twice asked the state Legislature to approve bonds to cover the cost. Both times, the Legislature rejected those bonds.

"This is something state leaders have gotten the state into over a long period of time," Kelso said.

"They've recognized that it's unconstitutional," Kelso said. "What has happened is, they're just unwilling to pay the bill — and there does come a point when federal constitutional requirements simply have to be met. And that's the point we've now reached."

On Friday, Judge Henderson will consider a motion to stay the contempt of court hearings against Schwarzenegger and Controller John Chiang. If the judge denies the motion, he is expected to rule that contempt hearings will begin next week.

Schwarzenegger and Chiang could face stiff fines if found in contempt — Kelso initially requested $2 million a day until they turn over the money, though any penalties would be up to the judge.

Judy Campbell reports for member station KQED in San Francisco.