California’s fiscal crisis has increased the stakes in its prison health care showdown. 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 that 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. A new medical building is under construction, 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 school children, universities, highway patrol,” said state Attorney General Jerry Brown. “We have to take it from somebody – it’s not there.”