Emergency medical care at new state prison

An inmate sleeps in his cell at the new California Healthcare Facility near Stockton. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / February 12, 2014)

A legal team representing California prisoners is questioning adequacy of emergency medical care at the state's newest prison, where admissions recently resumed after being halted to remedy problems.

In an Aug. 4 memo to the court-appointed receiver in charge of California's prison medical system, a lawyer for inmates details the deaths of three inmates at the California Healthcare Facility near Stockton. The memo, obtained by The Times, said the deaths "raise very serious concerns about the adequacy of medical care, including emergency response and emergency response review practices."

In one case, prison staff answering an emergency alarm allegedly made no attempt to revive a fallen inmate for more than six minutes, until a physician arrived. Another inmate's death in June was found by a prison committee to be  "possibly preventable" had he been given an ultrasound test called for by a specialist months earlier. On the day he died, the memo describes confusing and conflicting accounts on how long it took an ambulance to be called and to reach the prison.

A third inmate's death in June also was deemed by a prison review committee to be "possibly preventable" had he been diagnosed and treated properly.

Steven Fama, the Prison Law Office attorney who signed the memo on behalf of a legal team that toured the prison in July, confirmed the document and described the concerns it raises as "serious." The Prison Law Office represents California prisoners in class-action lawsuits over crowding and healthcare.

The court-appointed federal receiver, Clark Kelso, shut down admissions to the newly opened medical prison in January amid reports of problems that included understaffing, supply shortages and the death of an inmate. Kelso allowed admissions to resume in July at a staggered pace. The sprawling prison has some 1,100 beds to fill. 

The receiver's office is reviewing the deaths described in the memo as well as seeking to fill vacant medical positions to keep up with the prison's growing population of patients, said Kelso's spokeswoman, Joyce Hayhoe.

"If at any time we feel our staffed capacity could not support the number of inmates, we could slow down intake," she said.

However, she said Kelso believes the prison will be able to fill all beds by early next year.

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