Is CA Inmate Health Plan Far Too Ambitious?


Before a federal judge seized control, California’s prison health care system was a notorious dumping ground for inept doctors, says the Sacramento Bee. Three years later, prisoners, clinicians, and inmate advocates say conditions slowly are changing. Thanks to improvements in clinical staffing, many inmates get skilled, effective treatment. The court-appointed overseer of prison medical care, J. Clark Kelso, maintains that eventually his plans also will save the state billions of dollars.

A Bee investigation of Kelso’s operations found clinical successes tempered by deadly lapses – including a rise in “possibly preventable deaths” and serious errors linked to fatalities. Administrative missteps have jeopardized the availability of specialist doctors. And the cost of the receiver’s operations and plans dwarfs spending by other states. Today, California spends about $14,000 per inmate annually for health services, more than double the cost in New York, Texas, and Michigan. Those outlays, and plans to spend $8 billion more building or improving health centers, have drawn the ire of state leaders coping with the budget crisis. Some experts consider the strategy to create 10,000 long-term medical and mental health beds wildly beyond the need. Adjusted to the prison population, prisoners would have access to up to 120 times as many beds as those used by the general public. In states like Texas and Illinois, systems that were in a shambles were built into systems that provide a level of care that is fair and reasonable,” for a small fraction of Kelso’s planned cost, said Dr. Owen Murray, medical director for the Texas prisons. “California may need a more common-sense approach.”

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