FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2009, OR THEREAFTER
BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“PRISON SPENDING SOLUTIONS LEGISLATORS DON'T EVEN DISCUSS”
There's the governor's plan for cutting $1.2 billion in spending from California's prison budget and there are the state Senate and Assembly plans, mostly formulated by Democratic legislative leaders. But there is as yet no publicly palatable plan. Maybe that's because politicians seeking ways to make that cut and still avoid releasing inmates who might endanger public safety have not yet listened to ordinary citizens, including some people who work within the prison system.
Knowledgeable suggestions are out there, for sure. Plenty poured in from around the state during the summer after this column invited ideas from readers.
Those ideas, taken together with fast action on many millions of dollars worth of waste previously acknowledged by court-appointed prison health czar Clark Kelso, could make it far easier for legislators to meet their budget-cutting goal.
The waste Kelso admitted included his statement that “We’re paying at least $100 million more – maybe much more than that – than we should be” to outside hospitals where prisoners are treated when they have problems beyond what prison doctors can handle. The waste comes because most outside hospitals have so far not negotiated the kinds of contracts that commonly allow health maintenance organizations and insurance companies to pay far less than hospital “rack rates.” Huge savings could result from mandating fast-tracked price negotiations.
Then there are correctional system rules requiring that two guards accompany convicts around the clock when they’re off prison grounds – regardless of whether they are completely disabled. Prison officials say this is necessary both because of flight risks and to protect their charges from harm if enemies on the outside learn they are in a low-security hospital. Some prison officials estimate those rules lead to as much as $20 million in yearly wasted pay for guards who essentially do nothing while sitting around hospital wards.
But those are only two areas of unnecessary prison spending.
Readers pointed out many more ranging from excessive power usage in prison cells to the cost of caring for inmates who get nursing home care within the prison system.
“Some inmates who get medical, dental, mental health or nursing home care can cost the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as much as $500,000 per year apiece,” wrote one reader who serves as a chaplain at both Folsom prison and the California Institution for Women at Chino. That figure, which some officials have said applies to hundreds of prisoners, is more than 10 times the cost of maintaining a single ordinary inmate. The implication: sending high-maintenance prisoners to outside nursing homes when they’re too physically disabled to pose any threat to the public or those caring for them could save further tens of millions of dollars.
One problem: There would be a huge public outcry the first time such a prisoner escaped because he or she turned out to be faking disability, and then committed a serious crime. That makes this a mildly risky cut for legislators whose first concern is always their own reelection.
A potential cut that poses no such risk was offered by a Davis reader who is a former prison department employee. “Civil service rules allow a state supervisor or manager to be paid for an entire day even if he or she leaves work early to go to a medical or dental appointment or just to go home early,” she wrote. “Prior to a rule change 15 years ago, whenever (these persons) left work early, they used vacation time or sick leave, just like rank and file employees.
“During my nine years there, it was common for many managers to work very short days. I never saw these managers stay late on other days to make up for it, as the rules presume they will.”
A legislative hearing could easily determine how much this wastes and spur changes in the rules.
As for power usage, a guard at Mule Creek prison in Ione noted that “In every cell, inmates run their TVs 24/7. I see the TVs on all night when I do my counts and the prisoners are sleeping, or the inmates stay up all night watching TV and then sleep all day. In order to rehabilitate a person, don’t you think it would be smart to get them used to being awake during business hours?” Not to mention cutting down the prison system’s power bills.
Other readers pointed out wasteful purchasing practices for things like prison coveralls and cafeteria trays, which can be bought from outside providers for far less than it costs to get them from prison industry facilities.
Chances are the readers who offered these ideas have only scratched the surface of wasteful prison spending. But neither Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger nor state legislators have even heard these ideas because in all their debates and whining and name-calling in the prison cut debate, they have yet to hold public hearings soliciting public input.
If they’d make some of the reader-suggested cuts and try to find still more waste, perhaps they would have a far easier time making the budget cuts that are now so urgently needed.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net