Receiver swap didn’t speed prison health-care fix

Watching Senior U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson frown yesterday as a California deputy attorney general explained why the governor and controller might risk being held in contempt of court rather than fork over $250 million already earmarked for prison health care, I wondered if he’s had second thoughts about having replaced original prison health-care receiver Bob Sillen with current receiver J. Clark Kelso this past January.

Here’s what Henderson wrote in his Jan. 23, 2008 order replacing Sillen with Kelso:

While the current Receiver has successfully used his unique skills and bold, creative leadership style to investigate, confront, and break down many of the barriers that existed at the inception of the Receivership, the second phase of the Receivership demands a substantially different set of administrative skills and style of collaborative leadership. The Receivership must continue to maintain its independence as an arm of the federal courts established to take over state operations, but it also must work more closely at this stage with all stakeholders, including State officials, to ensure that the system developed and implemented by the Receivership can be transferred back to the State in a reasonable time frame. Such collaboration appears to be more important now than ever, given the current budget crisis faced by the State of California.

But by late this summer, Kelso had filed a motion asking Henderson to hold Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Controller John Chiang in contempt of court for refusing to pay the bills for a plan to build seven facilities with 10,000 beds for chronically sick or mentally ill inmates by mid-2013, as well as to improve existing facilities at the state’s 33 prisons. Now, under an order Henderson issued yesterday afternoon, the state has until next Wednesday, Nov. 5, to hand over the $250 million already earmarked under AB 900, a $7.8 billion prison-expansion bill Schwarzenegger signed into law in May 2007. If the money isn’t made available to Kelso’s office by then, the parties must return to court Wednesday, Nov. 12 to argue whether Schwarzenegger and Chiang should be held in contempt of court.

It’s a genuine showdown — hardly the “collaboration” of which Henderson wrote in appointing Kelso, a Sacramento law professor with a reputation as a “fixer” capable of cleaning up government messes quickly and efficiently. Looks like Kelso’s softer touch didn’t pan out; maybe the steamrolling Sillen, with his extensive experience in big health-care system management, was what the situation really required after all.

On a related note, the following comment was attached to my article about yesterday’s hearing:

We have law abiding citizens that go without medical care…..but break the law, rape a baby, murder someone etc and you get the best care possible….what is wrong with these fatheads passing these ridiculous laws….lets protect the “good guys” for a stinkin change and pucish the lawbreakers

Sorry, no. Say what you will about so many Californians remaining uninsured or underinsured (I think it’s abhorrent), but that’s an entirely different, seperate issue from this prison health-care morass. The state was sued, and lost; it has admitted that prison health care in California is so bad that it qualifies as constitutionally impermissable cruel and unusual punishment. In many cases, the lack of adequate care — or any care at all — has turned a prison sentence into a de facto death penalty as inmates died from treatable illnesses or injuries. When we as a society lock people up, we as a society accept responsibility for providing them adequate medical care — not a gold-plated Cadillac health-care plan, just the constitutional minimum. And we’ve failed to do so.

Yet despite this admission, the state for years failed to take meaningful steps to fix the problem; only then was a receiver appointed. This current flap exists not because the state disputes the problem, but simply because the bill has finally come due after decades of neglect, and the state doesn’t want to pay it.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.