By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - California will have an extra two months to reduce crowding in its prison system, a panel of three federal judges ruled on Wednesday, in the latest twist in a decades-long dispute over conditions and medical care for inmates.
The panel gave the most populous U.S. state until mid-January to reach a negotiated plan with lawyers representing inmates over poor medical care and crowded conditions. It also extended a deadline by about two months to April 18 to otherwise reduce crowding if no deal is reached.
California prisons have been in the national spotlight for the past year as officials wrestled with crowding and concerns about the state's use of long-term solitary confinement for prisoners with suspected gang ties, which led to a hunger strike this year.
The state has been under court orders to reduce inmate numbers since 2009, when the same panel ordered it to relieve overcrowding that several courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have said was to blame for inadequate medical and mental-health care.
As recently as 2006, the state's prisons held twice as many prisoners as they were meant to house, and inmate bunks were stacked in gymnasiums and day rooms along with regular cells. The 34 prisons in question, with about 120,000 inmates altogether, are now at about 150 percent of capacity.
California Governor Jerry Brown has repeatedly said he believes that the state has fixed its problem. The state has reduced crowding, though not to the degree required by the court, by shifting oversight for some inmates to the counties, re-opening a shuttered facility and transferring some inmates to private facilities. It has also improved medical services.
But the court has ordered the state to reduce the population further.
The judges in June ordered Brown to reduce the state prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity, even if that meant releasing some inmates early. The judges threatened to hold him in contempt of court if the state failed to comply.
The U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the original overcrowding ruling in 2011, earlier this year refused to hear an appeal by Brown of the panel's June order.
The state countered by offering to spend more money on anti-recidivism programs, such as mental health care and education for inmates, and the judges agreed to a short extension to see if officials could agree on a plan with lawyers representing inmates.
Brown's office welcomed Wednesday's decision to extend those talks, with spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman calling it "encouraging."
A lawyer representing the inmates said he did not believe overcrowding could be solved simply by providing more services to inmates. He said the state should implement the anti-recidivism programs while also moving to reduce crowding, including by allowing more inmates to earn early release through good behavior.
"I am not comfortable with a long extension," attorney Michael Bien said. "There has got to be something done and soon."
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Steve Orlofsky and David Brunnstrom)