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SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal judge has scolded California officials for failing to provide the billions of dollars a court-appointed receiver says is needed to upgrade the state's prison health care system.
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson made it clear Monday he expects California to pay $8 billion for seven new inmate medical facilities. But he stopped short of immediately holding Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Controller John Chiang in contempt for failing to turn over the money.
Medical care in California's prisons is so bad it has been ruled unconstitutional. Henderson appointed a receiver to run the prison medical system after finding that an average of an inmate a week was dying from neglect or malpractice.
The judge says he is likely to order the state to pay $250 million as a first installment to demonstrate good faith.
J. Clark Kelso, the receiver, said he needs that amount to start designing three new medical and mental health units. Kelso said he will need more than $3 billion before July 1 to begin building them. The rest of the $8 billion would come in later years.
"He needs the money to run it and improve it," Henderson said as he repeatedly dismissed objections from the state's deputy attorney general.
He noted a sense of urgency to reform California's delivery of inmate medical care and said the price tag to fix it should not be an obstacle.
"Defendants' argument would seem to allow federal constitutional rights to be trampled any time a state decides it would cost too much money," he said at the opening of the hearing.
The judge said he suspects that "nothing more than political intermeddling" is blocking the state from paying the money. He criticized the Schwarzenegger administration for its "11th hour change of heart" in opposing prison health care facilities it had supported until recently.
Kelso asked the judge to give the state one more chance to make a down payment in two weeks. The judge said he will issue a written order on that request within days.
The $8 billion for improving health care for prison inmates is nearly as much as the entire annual budget of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which will be a little more than $10.3 billion this fiscal year.
Henderson said it is no excuse that the state Legislature balked repeatedly this year at approving a borrowing plan that would have spread payments for the $8 billion over 25 years.
"They're not even starting, they're not even on the road where I want to go," Henderson said of reluctant lawmakers.
That lawmakers failed to agree to the prison-spending request is no surprise. They were overwhelmed this summer by a $15.2 billion budget deficit that led to the longest budget impasse in state history.
Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Lisa Page said the administration would not comment until it sees Henderson's written order.
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