January 23, 2008 / 9:49 PM / 11 years ago

Calif. prison healthcare still lacking, judge says

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Healthcare in California prisons has improved greatly since a federal judge seized control of the system two years ago, but the judge said on Wednesday that more steps are needed to bring standards to constitutional levels.

In 2005, Federal District Judge Thelton Henderson agreed with nine inmates who sued the state because of what they called rampant medical negligence and malpractice in prisons.

Henderson authorized a federal takeover of the system to avoid an “unconscionable degree of suffering and death” that he said would continue if the system were not dramatically overhauled.

Since the intervention, salaries for medical personnel have risen, staffing levels have increased, and the state has arranged a pilot program that allows prisoners to receive care from clinical specialists when needed, Henderson wrote in a ruling on Wednesday.

The ruling named a new official to lead the overhaul and gave a progress report on the effort so far.

“...It is beyond dispute that the system for delivering healthcare to California’s inmate population remains below constitutional standards and continues to be in need of repair,” Henderson wrote.

The reform efforts are expected to extend into 2011, said Rachael Kagan, spokeswoman for the California Prison Health Care Receivership.

California houses about 171,000 prisoners in “very overcrowded” lockups designed for 100,000 people, said Oscar Hidalgo, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Officials are not sure how many prisoners are treated annually, because the system does not have a functional medical records system, Kagan said.

Reporting by Amanda Beck; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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