By Denny Walsh and Sam Stanton

On the eve of a showdown in federal court over the future of California's prisons, Gov. Jerry Brown is speaking out at length about his view that the state is being forced to waste millions of tax dollars on federal oversight that is no longer necessary.

"During the life of these lawsuits, the prison health care budget has gone from $700 million to $2 billion," Brown said in an interview with The Bee, his first on the issue since the state filed court documents in January seeking to regain control of its prisons.

"That money is coming out of the university, it's coming out of child care. It's a situation you wouldn't dream anyone would want."

The governor's comments came as lawyers prepare for a battle in Sacramento federal court later this month over whether the state is providing a constitutional level of mental health and medical care for inmates. Oral arguments are scheduled for March 27 on California's motion to terminate oversight of mental health care by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton.

Another motion by the state, also filed in January, seeks to vacate or modify an order by a specially convened three-judge court to reduce inmate population. Oral arguments on that motion have not yet been scheduled.

In the interview, the governor revealed that he has been visiting with prison officials to discuss the issue and recently met with all of the state's wardens during a session in Galt.

"These are good people doing their level best," Brown said. "All the second-guessing and Monday-morning quarterbacking are just making the job more difficult. You've heard it. No matter what they do, it's wrong.

"That line is getting old, and it's not right. It's not Sunday school out there, but they're doing a hell of a job, and it's constitutional."

Brown and his administration have argued that California has solved its long-standing problems inside state prisons, where inmates once were warehoused in crowded gymnasiums and other areas.

Overcrowding, which the three-judge court found was the primary reason for unconstitutional health care in the prisons, once was so bad that the state's 33 adult institutions had double the number of inmates they were built to hold. The three-judge court decreed that overcrowding was preventing access to proper care and was responsible for an alarming number of inmate deaths.

Prisoner advocates say the situation remains dire, with the prisons still crowded and the provision of mental health care -- particularly efforts to reduce inmate suicides -- woefully inadequate.

"I wish the governor was right," said Michael Bien, lead attorney for the inmates, who has spent years fighting for improvements in California's prisons. "That would mean a success for me."

"It would mean we haven't worked all these years for nothing. Unfortunately for everybody, California's prisons are far from free of constitutional violations."

The state is under orders from the three-judge court to reduce its inmate population to 137.5 percent of capacity by the end of the year, a feat that would require trimming prison population by about 9,000 inmates to a total of about 110,000. The 33 prisons were designed to hold about 80,000 inmates.

The governor contends the state is no longer guilty of "deliberate indifference" to the plight of inmates and that he believes the highest court in the nation will agree.

"Deliberate indifference is the constitutional standard, and that's not present in today's prisons in California," Brown said. "We are committed to keeping it that way, and it's not plausible to say otherwise.

"I have no doubt that if we can get this back before the (U.S.) Supreme Court, it will agree."

The high court affirmed the three-judge court's reduction order when it considered the issue in 2011.

Brown conceded that there were problems in years past, but said the state has made tremendous progress, particularly with his realignment program that assigns responsibility for low-level, nonviolent offenders to the counties. Since the court-ordered reduction in 2009, the state inmate population has dropped from about 150,000 to 119,000 today.

"I'm not arguing that the system was not seriously dysfunctional in years past," he said. "But that time is behind us. We've invested a massive amount of resources. Realignment is bringing the inmate population down.

"But if there's much additional reduction we're looking at far more serious offenders on the streets. Obviously, it isn't worth risking the welfare of our citizens."

He argued in the interview that federal oversight -- which includes a Karlton-appointed special master and numerous lawyers and experts who work for him -- has turned into a permanent industry with no end in sight. Court papers show the state has paid attorneys representing the inmates, the special master and his staff, and a court-appointed receiver who runs prison medical care and his staff hundreds of millions of dollars over the past 23 years.

"These people are collecting their hourly rates, flying out here to do whatever it is they do, eating peanuts and watching TV on the plane," the governor said. "When they get here, their usual hourly rate kicks in again. These guys are just rolling."

The governor said he has taken a personal interest in the issue, visiting prisons to get to the heart of the matter.

"I just talked to personnel at one prison that has 32 psychologists, 10 psychiatrists and 24 psychiatric technicians for 3,600 patients," he said. "That kind of firepower is not available to anybody who is not in prison.

"People who say prison officials are willfully looking on as inmates commit suicide are so far removed from reality they are not credible. They are wrongly accusing civil servants who are honest, hardworking employees trying to do a job."

(c)2013 The Sacramento Bee