I do not intend to make light of any substandard medical care in California prisons. Henderson found California penal health care to be so "fraught with medical neglect and malfeasance" as to be unconstitutional. He cited filthy conditions and poor hygiene practices -- including a San Quentin dentist "who neither washed his hands nor changed his gloves after treating patients into whose mouths he had placed his hands." Ugh. (If this were a "Law & Order" episode, prosecutors would have charged the dentist with a crime -- and rightly so.)
The good news is that after Henderson stepped in, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger worked to improve the prison health care system and poured money into the effort, with results to show for it. A 2007 analysis of prison deaths for Kelso reported that a number of health workers left the system, while state prisons hired board-certified professionals.
The number of inmate deaths has fallen dramatically, from 124 in the first quarter of 2006 to 87 in the second quarter of 2008. The analysis found three "preventable" deaths in California prisons, one for an inmate who ingested razor blades.
These improvements are not good enough for Kelso. As the Sacramento Bee reported earlier this year, Kelso had been working on a plan for health care facilities with art therapists, music therapists and beauticians -- at an annual cost of $230,000 per inmate, according to a corrections agency draft.
Other problems, the Bee noted, were plans to build facilities with "proximity to urban areas, in several cases, backing up to neighboring homes and schools," in a "mall-based environment" with unlocked rooms that would allow male and female inmates to mix.
Does Kelso understand that 47 percent of the California prison population are repeat violent offenders, 33 percent are repeat offenders and many of the rest are first-time felons who committed serious crimes against people, like rape and murder? Do the three judges? As the Associated Press reported, one of the three, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento, asked recently, "In the long run, does it make any difference to public safety if we release them 60 days earlier?"
Corrections spokesman Seth Unger explained what that difference would be: "Releasing 50,000 inmates would be the equivalent of emptying 10 prisons onto the streets." Maybe Karlton doesn't worry about what the effect on the general public might be. But now we know, more prisoners may die.