California Faces Potential Millions in Fines Due to Ongoing Mental Health Care Crisis in Prisons

by Ella

In a pivotal development, a federal judge presided over closing arguments on Thursday in a protracted case spanning decades that questions whether California should face substantial fines for its persistent shortage of mental health staff within its prison system.


These arguments marked the culmination of an extended hearing that took place in early October, during which Chief U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller scrutinized an array of testimonies addressing issues such as staff recruitment and retention and salary structures. Judge Mueller will take this extensive testimony into account when determining whether the state should be held in contempt and be subjected to fines that have accrued since late March.


The accumulating fines amount to nearly $6.7 million each month, totaling over $40 million from April through September.


This courtroom drama is a pivotal component of the ongoing 1990 class action lawsuit, Coleman v. Newsom, which centers on the quality of mental health care provided in California’s state prisons.


Lisa Ells, an attorney representing the plaintiff class, argued that the state had ample opportunities during the hearing to demonstrate that its current wages failed to attract the necessary number of mental health professionals, and that salary levels had no effect on the recruitment of clinicians. “But the reality is, they didn’t attempt either of these,” she emphasized.

Furthermore, Ells criticized the state for the deplorable working conditions in prisons, citing evidence of rodent infestations and inadequate supplies, such as two-ply toilet paper. She contended that the state needs to raise salaries to entice more mental health professionals to work under such challenging conditions, stating, “They have not tried that, and that is perhaps the most crucial aspect of this entire proceeding.”

In response, attorney Ernest Galvan argued in court filings that more than 13 years have elapsed since the state adopted its 2009 staffing plan, and over six years since a judge ordered its compliance within a year. “Nearly three years have passed since the severity of the defendants’ current staffing crisis became evident,” Galvan wrote, adding that the salaries provided to psychologists and social workers are still far from compensating them for the adverse working conditions they endure.

Representing the state, attorney Paul Mello contended that his clients have made every reasonable effort to fill vacancies and streamline the hiring process. He emphasized that they are not obligated to take unreasonable measures.

Acknowledging the staffing dilemma, Mello pointed out the broader context of a nationwide shortage of mental health providers and the challenges posed by shifting employee expectations following the pandemic and the Great Resignation. He also highlighted the recent strike by Kaiser Permanente workers, who are demanding higher pay to cope with rising living costs and improved staffing levels, along with an end to outsourcing work.

Mello stressed that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is not operating in isolation when it comes to recruiting and retaining employees. It, too, grapples with the scarcity of mental health workers and the evolving employment landscape.

In court documents, attorneys Damon McClain and Samantha Wolff argued that the state’s financial commitment to mental health care has increased significantly over the past three decades, from $40 million in 1990 when the original class action was initiated to over $650 million in the fiscal year 2023-24. They asserted that this commitment has translated into considerably improved access to mental health care for Coleman class members, even when accounting for the higher demand among incarcerated individuals compared to the general adult population of California.

The next hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Tuesday in Sacramento, with the outcome of this ongoing legal battle poised to have far-reaching consequences.


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