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California wants control of prison mental health care

  • FILE - In this March 30, 2007 file photo, medical worker Theresa Wilks keeps a vigil outside an isolation cell containing an inmate who authorities fear might attempt suicide, at California State Prison, Sacramento, in Folsom, Calif. Eighteen years after a federal court takeover of California's prison mental health system, a U.S. judge is set to consider this week whether the billions of dollars invested by California taxpayers have improved conditions enough that he return control to the state.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file)

SACRAMENTO — Nearly two decades after a court takeover of California's prison mental health system, a federal judge is set to consider this week whether the billions of dollars invested by California taxpayers have improved conditions enough that he can return control to the state.

Gov. Jerry Brown has aggressively moved to end the long-running lawsuit. The state has spent $1 billion for inmate mental health treatment facilities in recent years, reworked its suicide prevention policies and hired hundreds of new mental health employees at increased salaries. Base salaries for prison psychiatrists now range from $126,000 to $281,952, with chief psychiatrists paid more.

The Democratic governor argues that the state has done enough and cannot continue to bear such a high financial burden.

For all the expense and effort, the law firms advocating for inmates and the court's own supervisors say conditions remain so poor that they still violate prisoners' basic rights. They say inmates die by suicide at the rate of one every 11 days, the state still has too few mental health staff and beds, and inmates can wait weeks before they receive mental health treatment.

"The governor has wishful thinking," said Michael Bien, the lead attorney representing the welfare of mentally ill inmates.


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