updated 8/13/2008 7:11:28 PM ET 2008-08-13T23:11:28

A federal court official asked a judge Wednesday to seize $8 billion from California's cash-strapped treasury to improve medical care at the state's overcrowded prisons.

Court-appointed receiver Clark Kelso said he needs the money over the next five years to build new medical units for 10,000 sick or mentally ill inmates.

Kelso also asked U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson to hold Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state's controller in contempt of court if they don't allocate the money soon.

Federal courts have declared the health care system in California's 33 state prisons so poor that it violates inmates' constitutional rights. Kelso was named by the court to oversee the reform effort.

The request to U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson in San Francisco comes as lawmakers remain at odds over how to cope with California's $15.2 billion deficit seven weeks after the start of the fiscal year.

Kelso asked the judge to seize the money only after the state Senate failed twice to pass a borrowing plan that would spread out the cost of building the medical units. He wants $6 billion for new prison health care facilities and $2 billion for improving existing ones.

Prison system is packed
The system is packed with about 159,000 inmates, well above the prisons' designed capacity of about 100,000, in large part because of tough state sentencing laws.

In a statement, Kelso said he tried to get the funds without disrupting California's budget process, "but the state's leaders have failed to act. Therefore, it is with great reluctance and with a sense of firm conviction, that today I seek the court's intervention to secure this funding."

If the request is granted, it would add $3.1 billion to the state's budget deficit in the current year. Lawmakers already are facing the prospect of cutting billions of dollars from basic state services and perhaps raising billions in taxes just to balance this year's budget.

Schwarzenegger's office said the administration will continue to work with Kelso and lawmakers to provide the health care funding "in a fiscally responsible way."

"Obviously, the state's in a precarious financial situation right now, but we have a responsibility to continue to work with the Legislature to provide the receiver the resources he needs," spokesman Aaron McLear said.

The office of state controller John Chiang did not have an immediate response to Kelso's motion.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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