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.
The state and inmates' attorneys will argue Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton in a Sacramento courtroom. Karlton must rule by early next month under the speedy legal process Brown set in motion in January.
It's part of the Democratic governor's larger effort to end a separate legal case requiring federal control of the prison medical system and to overturn an order backed by the U.S. Supreme Court that has forced the state to reduce the number of inmates in its 33 adult prisons. To comply, the state enacted a so-called realignment law that requires lower-level offenders to do their time in county jails. It also has been sending some inmates to private prisons in other states, a program Brown now wants to end.
Yet inmates' attorneys, court experts and the judge himself say a series of missteps imperil the state's efforts. Among them:
—The judge said he might refuse to consider reports from all four of the state's mental health experts because of ethical violations. The experts, whose opinions are at the core of the state's case, said they found constitutionally adequate mental health care at 13 prisons they visited last year. But attorneys representing inmates say they were not notified of the visits and were not present when their mentally ill clients were interviewed by the experts. The judge said the lapse appears to be a violation of a direct court order requiring that inmates' attorneys be notified and present.
— A consultant hired by the state reported "continuing and chronic" problems with the prisons' suicide prevention efforts in August 2011. However, an email from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's suicide prevention coordinator in June 2012 said the critical report and its recommendations were buried. Corrections officials deny ignoring the report.
— The court's lead suicide prevention expert earlier this month reported that California's suicide rate worsened last year to 24 per 100,000 inmates, up from 21 per 100,000 in 2011 and from an average of 16 per 100,000 between 1999 and 2004. The current rate far exceeds the national average of 16 suicides per 100,000 inmates in state prisons and the historical average of nine suicides per 100,000 inmates in federal prisons. Yet Dr. Raymond Patterson wrote that his recommendations have gone "unheeded, year after year" for the last 14 years.