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In an untested move that may open prison doors for hundreds of California inmates, a federal judge has ordered the creation of a three-judge court to oversee a unique effort to remedy the broken health care system in the nation’s largest state prison system. U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ruled July 23 that repeated failed attempts at meaningful reform, including a declaration of a state of emergency in California’s prisons by the Governor, prompted him to order creation of the special court to determine whether inmates must be released early, or incarceration dates delayed, in order to improve health care. The focus now shifts to 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Schroeder of Phoenix who must select the three judges, one from the appeals court and two district judges. Henderson is employing the terms of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, which curtailed the ability of a single federal judge to put a cap prison populations or order early releases. It requires a three-judge court to oversee the need of prisoner release, if less intrusive measures have failed and the state has had a reasonable time to comply with reform orders. Although the law is 12 years old only one other three-judge court has been seated and in that case a settlement June 4 prevented the need for it to act in an Ohio case, Roberts v. County of Mahoning, Ohio No. 4:03-cv-2329. In California, Henderson and U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento, Calif., must decide whether health care for 173,000 inmates crammed into 33 prisons designed for half that number, has been so constitutionally impaired that only an independent panel of judges can fix it by capping prison population. California’s prisons have been embroiled in controversy for years, Plata v. Schwarzenegger, C01-1351TEH. It has resulted in a court-appointed monitor to reform excessive use of force by guards in several institutions and appointment of a receiver to overhaul the medical care system so poor it was declared constitutionally inadequate. One prison director resigned in the face of accusations he doctored internal investigations of abusive prison guards and lied about it. A second director left a few months later in the face of stonewalling of reforms and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the prisons in October 2006.

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