Investigation into Out-of-State Death of California Inmate

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The federal receiver in charge of California prison medical care has sent a team to investigate a prisoner's death in Mississippi. The inmate was among four thousand transferred out-of-state to reduce overcrowding in California prisons. KPCC's Julie Small explains why this inmate death could call the transfer policy into question.

Julie Small: Last month, a 41-year-old state prison inmate died of cardiac arrest after an asthma attack. Robert Washington was serving seven years for auto theft, but he was serving the time for his California crime at the Tallahatchie County Correction Facility in Mississippi. It's a private prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America.

Luis Patino: The investigative team felt that it needed to go down and make sure that things were being done correctly there.

Small: Luis Patino works for the federal receiver appointed to oversee medical care for California prison inmates, including the inmates who've been transferred to out-of-state prisons. Patino says the federal receiver's team will investigate whether a delay in medical care contributed to Washington's death, and the illness of another inmate.

Patino: The question of the delays in the delivery of care for the inmates appears to be similar.

Small: The federal receiver also plans to review "the long-term viability" of California's contract with the Corrections Corporation of America. The state is paying the private prison operator $115 million this year to house nearly 4,000 California inmates in Arizona, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Mississippi.

Lance Corcoran: We have long been an opponent of what we call "dungeons for dollars."

Small: Lance Corcoran is with California's prison guard union. The union sued to stop the Department of Corrections from transferring inmates out of state, and won. But the state appealed. The appeal comes up for a hearing tomorrow. Corcoran says he's not surprised an inmate died at the private prison facility in Tallahatchie.

Corcoran: Corrections is not an easy business, and the only way that privateers save money is to be less selective in the services that they provide, and also the staff that they hire.

Small: But Oscar Hidalgo with the Department of Corrections says the private prison might not be at fault.

Oscar Hidalgo: We had some delays on the ambulance, the county's ambulance service, not necessarily the response from the prison staff.

Small: Hidalgo says pulling the state's contract with the Corrections Corporation of America would be an overreaction. He says transferring prisoners out of state means California's crowded prisons are a little less crowded.

Hidalgo: We've been able to close down or deactivate gymnasiums where 200-plus inmates were living in triple bunks. Now that space is being used as an actual gymnasium for recreation, or a classroom activity for inmates to program. We're seeing room being made in our prison system that was two years ago burgeoning to the point of– we were about to close any intake to any new inmates.

Small: California's Department of Corrections is counting on more out-of-state transfers. It's already signed a contract with the Corrections Corporation of America to move another 3,000 inmates in the next couple of years.