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November 16, 2006 - Sacramento Bee (CA)

Receiver Rips Prison Health System, Promises Tough Fixes

By Andy Furillo, Bee Capitol Bureau

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The court-appointed receiver overseeing the $1.5 billion state medical system laid out the enormity of the problems still facing inmate health care Thursday, and promised to have federal marshals raid the state treasury to fix a problem he described as largely political.

In a riveting 1 1/2-hour presentation to the Little Hoover Commission, Robert Sillen said 65 inmates have been dying every year in the prison system due to poor medical care.

Sillen, in his seventh month on the job, said the fatalities have continued even since his appointment, and he told the government watchdog panel about a death earlier this year in which a quadriplegic inmate with a colostomy bag and internal catheter fell into a coma with a 109-degree temperature and died after an 11-hour van ride in July heat.

No medical personnel accompanied the inmate on the trip from a prison in Kings County to another in Imperial County, Sillen said.

"That's the kind of thing I'm talking about," Sillen said.

The receiver said the root of the prison health care problem is political, with not enough people in state government willing to tackle the crisis.

He said he is prepared, under the authority of the federal courts, to have federal marshals raid the state treasury to fund the fixes he is set to propose and that "everybody in state employ" is subject to the threat of a contempt of court citation if they don't comply with him.

One high-ranking Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation official has already quit in face of a contempt threat, Sillen told reporters.

He said that he will seek a federal court order if need be to get around the state's civil service protections, rulings by the State Personnel Board and union contracts that he says inhibit his ability to improve the system.

He cited one case of a prison physician who was disciplined but returned to his job after winning an SPB case.

"I won't have it," Sillen said in an interview.

In an aside to the commission, Sillen said an estimated 40 physicians who had been working at San Quentin State Prison at its much-excoriated medical clinic are now taking administrative time off with pay, "doing nothing," which the receiver said was OK with him.

"I'd rather have them staying at home doing nothing than killing patients," Sillen said.

Under questioning from commission members, Sillen said he expects his receivership to last upwards of several years and that when he is finished, he expects to have established a prison health care system similar to a major private system such as Kaiser.

Copyright © The Sacramento Bee

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