LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- A lawsuit over inmates' medical care is playing a large part in a federal appeal whose outcome could have far-reaching effects on Michigan prisons.
The state, which wants to close the Southern Michigan Correctional Facility in July, warns a legal defeat will keep the Jackson prison open and thwart savings of $35 million a year at a time state government is facing mounting budget deficits.
But critics say shuttering the prison without a better plan to transfer sick inmates will cause certain suffering and death.
Also at stake: whether the state Department of Corrections can elude the long-standing oversight of a fed-up federal judge who has blasted the prison health care system as "callous," "dysfunctional" and a "grave systemic failure."
In the coming weeks, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati is expected to rule on the state's request to let the Jackson prison close on schedule.
U.S. District Judge Richard Enslen in Kalamazoo recently blocked the closure and ordered the state to revise plans for moving inmates to other prisons around the state, worrying they would not get necessary medical care and could die en route. He cautions that oversight of the health and safety of Jackson inmates under a 1985 federal consent decree will not end solely if they are moved elsewhere.
"The implicit suggestion made in such plans is the Court is willing to sign off on a shell game which substitutes mere movement of prisoners for significant improvement in medical health care," Enslen wrote May 4. "The Court will not."
Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan says the long-running court case known as Hadix was a factor in deciding to close Southern Michigan, one of three Jackson prisons under federal oversight.
"This prison is really the focal point," said Marlan, noting that about half of its 1,400-plus prisoners are medically fragile with chronic illnesses such as diabetes. "The court case would continue, but it would not be as significant."
Many inmates with health problems are housed in Jackson because it has Michigan's only prison-run health center.
Lawyers for the inmates condemn the planned closure of Southern Michigan as a blatant attempt to escape federal oversight and move prisoners to facilities where there is no scrutiny.
"That's a no-no under federal law," said Elizabeth Alexander of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. "This is a dysfunctional health system of which the Hadix facilities are at the center. It's even worse in the rest of the state."
Enslen says health care in Michigan prisons does not meet constitutional standards, citing a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deliberate indifference to inmates' medical needs violates the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment.
The judge is critical of delays in care for inmates with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. Of six randomly reviewed cases involving delays, four could have caused unnecessary death or suffering, Enslen says.
The state, which cites problems recruiting prison health workers, argues that moving Southern Michigan inmates to 41 other prisons will spread out the work load to others who can treat chronically ill prisoners and let Jackson-area specialists concentrate on patients in other state prisons in the area.
But Enslen and a medical monitor fault transfer plans for not specifying or ensuring the availability of doctors, nurses and transport staff at other prisons. One problem, they say, is those facilities have worse ratios of medical staff to inmates.
The case is striking a nerve as lawmakers and Gov. Jennifer Granholm grapple with major budget problems, including how to slow spending in the $2 billion prison system.
Corrections officials and Republican legislators blame the legal battle for some higher costs, taking particular exception with an order to install air conditioning at Southern Michigan by July 15.
Enslen, citing the August 2006 death of a 21-year-old mentally ill inmate who had been shackled in a hot cell for four days, says a summer heat wave could put more than a third of Southern Michigan's inmates at risk for heat-related injuries due to their medical conditions.
Marlan says if the 6th Circuit rules against the state, the chances of shutting down Southern Michigan later are "very unlikely" because the state will not spend up to $800,000 on a temporary cooling system and then close the prison.
The judge's frustration with the state has resulted in scathing opinions -- he called corrections workers "dead wood" and said inmate transfers "must depend upon more than vain hope and patent dereliction of duty." One GOP state senator has suggested that Enslen be removed from the bench.
And Sen. Alan Cropsey, a Republican from DeWitt, argues that prisoners' care has improved significantly over time "but it never seems to be enough for the judge."
"These prisoners are getting better health care than the average middle-class citizen in the state of Michigan," Cropsey said. "Congress needs to take the federal judiciary in hand and tell them to back off."
The inmates' lawyers respond that court orders and threats of fines sometimes are the only way to protect inmates and reverse the state's indifference to their health.
"There's no reason people should have cancer and not get treatment," said Patricia Streeter, an attorney for the inmates.