Guards: Crowded Calif. prisons neglect ill inmates

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Inmates with open, bleeding wounds routinely use communal showers and suicidal prisoners are sometimes kept for hours inside small cages, witnesses testified in a lawsuit over state prison crowding.

The four guards who testified before a three-judge panel Thursday supported earlier evidence suggesting that substandard medical and mental health care is a result of jam-packed prisons.

The state, which argues that prison conditions are improving, was scheduled to begin its defense Friday.

California’s 33 adult prisons are designed to hold about 100,000 inmates, but currently have more than 156,000.

Federal judges considering the class-action lawsuits already have ruled that medical and mental health care is so poor in California prisons that it violates constitutional standards, sometimes contributing to inmates’ deaths.

If the panel determines that overcrowding is the cause, it could order the early release of thousands of inmates, a move opposed by the Schwarzenegger administration. The three-judge panel began hearing the case this week and hopes to complete the entire process before Christmas.

Among those testifying Thursday was guard Gary Benson, who works in a medical triage unit at Folsom State Prison outside Sacramento. He said as many as 50 inmates at a time typically wait two to five hours inside a 12-foot by 20-foot holding area for medical or mental health treatment.

He said he also routinely sees inmates in communal showers with “bleeding, oozing” staph infections. Benson said he contracted an antibiotic-resistant staph infection in July 2006. Inmates with the infections are not segregated and such diseases often spread inside the prisons, he said.

Brenda Gibbons, a guard in a 128-bed mental health unit at Salinas Valley State Prison, said suicidal inmates were kept overnight in cages the size of telephone booths until crisis cells became available.

She also said some severely mentally ill inmates wait more than a year to be transferred to mental health facilities.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents more than 30,000 guards, joined with the inmates’ rights attorneys. Union attorney Gregg Adam said the crowding creates “a dehumanizing effect on correctional staff.”

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