The state of California will soon know if it will be forced to pay millions of dollars in fines for not having enough mental health staff in prisons after a federal judge heard closing arguments on Thursday, Courthouse News reports. Chief U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller will consider testimony when determining whether the state should be held in contempt and pay fines accumulated since late March. Almost $6.7 million in fines accrue each month, or over $40 million from April through September. The hearing is part of the 1990 class action Coleman v. Newsom, which focused on mental health care in state prisons. Class attorney Lisa Ells argued that the state had opportunities to establish that its wages couldn’t draw the required number of mental health professionals. It also could have established its salaries had no effect on recruiting the necessary number of clinicians.
Ells slammed the state over working conditions, saying testimony showed prisons were infested with rodents. One person said they lacked two-ply toilet paper. The state, Ells argued, doesn’t want to pay more to hire clinicians and has taken no steps to improve its working conditions. It must increase salaries to get enough mental health professionals to work in difficult conditions. Attorney Paul Mello, representing the state, said his clients have taken all reasonable efforts to fill vacancies and streamline the hiring process. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation does not recruit and retain employees in a vacuum, Mello said. It’s dealing with a scarcity of mental health workers, changed employee expectations since the pandemic and the Great Resignation. The next hearing is set for Tuesday in Sacramento.