SACRAMENTO — California prison officials on Monday asked for a two-month delay in meeting their first court-ordered target for reducing the state’s inmate population, after federal judges changed the rules at the last minute.
Monday was the deadline for the state to reduce the population of its 34 adult prisons to an interim amount set by the court. The state missed the mark by 216 inmates.
Prison officials had expected to meet the goal until last week. That’s when a panel of three federal judges ruled that they could count only part of the capacity of the state’s newest prison, a medical and mental health hospital in Stockton that is designed to hold 2,950 inmates.
The state would have been ahead of the benchmark had the court not ruled as it did, said Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The judges invited the state to seek the two-month extension, acknowledging that their ruling just a week before the deadline left prison officials little time to adjust.
While the Stockton medical complex opened a year ago, the federal overseer who runs the prison medical system abruptly halted admissions in late January because of problems in providing basic necessities and care.
Prison medical receiver J. Clark Kelso said the hospital did not have enough staff and cited problems with the food service, accommodating disabled inmates and providing basic medical and personal hygiene products.
The judges ruled that until admissions resume, the state can count only those beds that were occupied at the time Kelso shut down medical admissions.
Prison officials said in their filing Monday that they expect Kelso to allow admissions to begin again no later than Aug. 25. That would let them count the facility’s full capacity by the time the two-month extension expires on Aug. 31.
Monday’s benchmark was the first in a series of targets the state is supposed to meet over the next two years to reduce the population of its major prisons, which currently is 116,200 inmates.
The three judges ordered the state to reduce overcrowding as the key way to improve inmate medical and mental health care, a decision that has been upheld twice by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Had the judges not invited California to seek the extension, the state faced the prospect that a court-appointed compliance officer would have begun releasing inmates based on their potential risk to public safety and other factors.
The prisons will remain overcrowded even if the state meets the federal judges’ ultimate inmate population target, which says the system can be no more than 137 percent of its designed capacity.