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CA officials to ready nation’s largest prison healthcare facility

Seven years ago, a federal judge seized control of California’s prison healthcare system because one inmate was dying each week from neglect. The judge appointed a federal receiver, Clark Kelso, to fix the failing system.

Now, Kelso is allowing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to take charge of opening the nation’s largest prison medical facility by next July. How well it accomplishes the task will determine how soon a federal judge might end his oversight of prison medical care.

Kelso says opening the new facility in Stockton is a critical step, and delegating the task to CDCR will test the department's resolve to reach a higher standard of care.

"We’re going to find out: Can CDCR hire 2,000 people, do all the procurements that have to get done, actually get people moved in, do the training, get all the supervisors in place, get all the written local policies done?" Kelso said. "There’s a lot that has to get done."

The 144-acre medical hub will house 1,700 inmates too sick to live in regular prisons. Those inmates, who require 24-hour care, are crowding out others who need lower levels of medical attention. Some end up being sent to outside hospitals at a cost of up to $1,500 a day for the state.

"We're generally concerned about the CDCR's ability to handle this critical task," said Don Specter, an attorney with the Prison Law Office, which sued the state to improve medical care for inmates. Specter says letting the Corrections department handle the start-up of the Stockton facility will be a good measure of its ability to manage a complex and large operation before regaining control of the entire prison medical system.

"It directly affects the lives and well-being of tens of thousands of prisoners," Specter said, "and if it’s done wrong, we’ve seen from history that many prisoners will die of malpractice and neglect. And we don't want that to happen again."

If the Department of Corrections successfully opens the Stockton facility, the federal receiver will give more control of prison healthcare back to the state. Kelso says a good way to measure the state’s performance is whether they meet multiple deadlines to open the facility on time.

"You were able to bring on 500 employees by this date, or not," Kelso says. "And if you lose a day, the rest of your schedule slips."

The Corrections department will also manage renovation of the adjacent Dewitt facility in Stockton, and $750 million in renovations for medical clinics at prisons.

The change takes effect Friday.

A spokesman for the Department of Corrections declined to comment for this story. The Secretary of Corrections, Matthew Cate, has maintained for many years that California’s prisons already provide good healthcare to inmates, and that the state is ready to resume control.