A judge has levied more than $50 million in fines against California for failing to correct a chronic shortage of mental health providers in state prisons.
The fines, imposed by Chief US District Judge Kimberly Mueller, are part of a decade-long federal class action lawsuit over the treatment of California inmates with mental illness. Mueller, who recently concluded a trial on the matter, will decide in the coming weeks whether to hold the state in contempt and order the full payment of the fines.
Gov. did. Gavin Newsom has made overhauling the state’s mental health system a major focus of his second term, but his office declined to comment on staffing shortages, citing ongoing litigation. Newsom pushed for voter support to pass a $6.4 billion bond measure in March to add thousands of new behavioral health beds across the state.
Ernest Galvan, an attorney representing the inmate plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said expanding treatment options in the community is key to long-term success but that the state needs to meet people where they are. today.
California, under court order, has reduced its prison population from about 136,000 to 92,000 over the past decade, but the percentage of people behind bars with mental illness continues to grow.
“None of us should be happy with the idea that we need to staff these prisons with mental health clinicians because these prisons are the worst kind of places to provide treatment for mental health,” said Ernest Galvan, a lawyer representing the inmates in the case. “But that’s the unfortunate outcome of the last generation of mental health policymakers.”
“A lot of people get very sick in prison, and then they don’t adjust well when they get out, so we need to channel care there,” he added.
The fines pile up amid an ongoing legal battle over inmate care
Under the case, known as Coleman, a federal court ruled in 1995 that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation did not provide adequate mental health care to prisoners. The court concluded that the department’s mental health staff was “stretched dangerously thin,” resulting in a decline in the quality of treatment and the number of inmates being treated, as well as an alarming number of suicides in custody.
The state corrections department submitted a detailed plan to the court in 2009 to guide an overhaul of the mental health care system, and the court appointed a special master to monitor compliance.
But nearly 15 years later, Mueller found that the state was unable to meet its targets and the maximum 10% vacancy required by a court order. The state has only met court-imposed staffing orders for certain classifications at various points in time.
Terri Hardy, a state corrections spokeswoman, said her department could not comment on pending litigation but added that “the health and well-being of the people we care for is paramount.”
Hardy said the department’s lack of providers is compounded by the location of state prisons, often in rural communities and historically difficult to staff.
Mueller began imposing fines in April based on the amount the corrections department saved by not filling vacant but budgeted mental health positions. He calculates the fines each month using the average maximum salary for each open position. The largest vacancy charges, which claim the highest total amount of fines, are for clinical psychologists and social workers.
Under the ongoing lawsuit, the state also faces fines for delays in transferring inmates to state mental hospitals and for failing to complete court-ordered suicide prevention measures.
California is struggling to fill vacant mental health roles in prisons
This month’s trial centers on a key question: Did the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation take all reasonable steps to fill mental health staffing shortages and fulfill 90% of the orders of the court staff?
Through testimony and written briefs, attorneys representing the state and the inmates offered their own economists and mental health experts who gave conflicting opinions to the judge.
The state argued that the corrections department has made “extraordinary efforts” to fill and maintain staffing levels, citing higher-than-average salaries, expanded telework options, a new labor agreement with a salary increase, and other financial incentives.
Despite the measures, the state stated in a court brief that compliance is “impossible under the current context.” That context, they wrote, is a national shortage of mental health providers due to burnout and an aging workforce.
Lawyers for the inmates denied the claims. Instead, they maintained that the state “did not act with enough urgency to fill the positions” and “just continued business as usual.”
A closing brief, written by attorneys for the inmates, argued that the salaries offered to psychologists and social workers in California prisons do not “come close to compensating them for the poor working conditions that they have to endure.”
The state asked Judge Mueller for more time to comply. Lawyers for the inmates asked him to issue a contempt ruling and order the state to pay the full amount of the fine.