Federal Receiver Calls for More Money to Fix California's Prison Health Care System

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Last year, California lawmakers passed a $7 billion plan to expand prisons. It included $1 billion to add thousands of medical beds to improve care for inmates. The man in charge of fixing medical care in the state prison system says it wasn't enough. Clark Kelso told lawmakers at a hearing yesterday he needs another $7 billion to do the job right. KPCC's Julie Small says state lawmakers are appalled.

Julie Small: The federal receiver in charge of improving prison medical care says the state needs to build seven new prison medical facilities and upgrade some others. Clark Kelso told lawmakers that'll cost more than the $1 billion they allocated last year. So Kelso asked for a one-time loan of $7 billion, financed by bonds.

Clark Kelso: My hope is that by presenting that complete, simple package – and in many ways I know it's a big number, but it still is a simple package – that I'll get better understanding from the administration and from the Legislature about what we intend to do.

Small: But the Legislature – at least, the members in the Senate Budget Subcommittee on State Administration – first wanted to know what happened to the billion the state allocated for prison medical care last year. Senator Christine Kehoe of San Diego posed the question to the Finance Department's Karen Finn. Wasn't that money supposed to pay for more prison medical beds? Finn told her it was spent on something else.

Senator Christine Kehoe: There won't be anything left over to put into this?
Karen Finn: There will not be anything left over, no.
Kehoe: It's just a... it really borders on the incredible that we need to do this much in a year when we're cutting schools by five billion. Just incredible.

Small: Senator Denise Ducheny, who chairs the main budget committee, echoed that frustration, and added to it. Part of the prison medical plan calls for taking a hundred million dollars out of the state's general fund. As she shuffled papers, Ducheny eyed Finn, and asked where the Legislature was supposed to find $100 million in a deficit-riddled budget.

Finn: Supporting a new general fund–
Senator Denise Ducheny: From where? Given that we still have a $10 billion problem!
Finn: I understand.

Small: The independent Legislative Analyst Office, which crunches numbers for lawmakers, wanted more information on how upgrading prison medical care would affect the state budget in years to come. Analyst Nancy Paulus:

Nancy Paulus: We have no information related to operating cost, no information related to the numbers of staff. Information isn't provided on the impact on the budget of debt service, nor how this authorizing another $7 billion in lease revenue bonds would actually affect the state's five-year infrastructure plan for other facility needs, such as for public schools.

Small: Kelso says he understood that under normal circumstance, lawmakers would expect that level of analysis before they approved spending billions of dollars. But he says he doesn't have time for that. The federal court wants prison medical care fixed now.

Kelso: I think the Legislative Analyst's Office needs to have a better appreciation that we're dealing here with a federal mandate, and a federal court order, and that we can't have business as usual.

Small: To improve medical care for inmates and ease the workload of prison doctors, a panel of federal judges might cap California's prison population. But if fewer inmates is what the judges want, Senator Mike Machado says several bills now in the works will do just that. And Machado says maybe if California builds fewer prison cells, or fewer medical facilities, the state would have money to spend on other things.

Senator Mike Machado: What are the options that can effect cost savings, that can allow us to be able to continue to provide money for schools, not have to take away medical services from the most needy, and not have to jeopardize public safety?

Small: Machado also says California has to stop managing prisons by crisis intervention. He says it's time to decide how many people the state can afford to lock up.