Apocalypse Hoosegow, Part II

Part II of a series wherein we follow Federal Receiver J. Clark Kelso “up the river” of prison health costs

The parting shot in our first installment focused on the current rate of spending in California prisons and the fact that there’s no excuse for letting Federal Receiver J. Clark Kelso keep his job rather than hiring someone who will stand up for taxpayers. In his failure to redirect squandered resources from the corrections officers’ labor union, we saw how Kelso is yet another judicial forfeit;

like his predecessor, it appears he has become one with CCPOA maneuvering and is as contented with the status quo as the overindulged CDCR.

In fact, neither Kelso nor the Department of Corrections seem to love the attention they’ve been getting from Jack Dolan, an LA Times reporter following this story. But it has finally prodded Team Kelso forward. Dolan held Kelso’s feet to the fire by reporting on “medical parole” candidates like Edward Ortiz, a semi-paralyzed, 57-year old inmate on a ventilator ankle-chained to his off-site hospital bed. A prison guard is stationed there 24 hours a day, and another is posted at the door, says Dolan. For good measure, a sergeant is also on the scene around the clock to supervise.

In asking questions of the CDCR and Receiver Kelso that no one else seems able to get answered, Dolan has spoken to restrained inmates on life-support (for seven years in one case) who “require” the costly supervision of riot-trained personnel; union-shielded Corrections Officers who supervise these veggies and are no doubt caught up on their Harry Potter novels; Corrections brass who know how tranquil such a plum assignment can be and thus dole out sickbay duties to favored senior staffers; as well as many others.

Here’s what Dolan revealed last Wednesday. Despite a now 6-month-old California law aimed at sparing taxpayers the ludicrous costs of guarding incapacitated or comatose inmates, of the $50 million that will be required in 2011 for 25 inmates wheezing away on hospital life support, $21 million is earmarked for unionized Badges alone. Imagine, laid off teachers: twenty-one million to “guard” guys even Kelso was forced to admit are “going nowhere.”

But here’s the real kicker: Kelso, in defending his own impotence regarding his budget slashing duties, has long been siding with the CDCR in crying bureaucracy as the explanation for why the bill sponsored by State Sen. Mark Leno and signed by the Governor’s office has stalled. In the words of prison spokesman Oscar Hidalgo, “We are not in the business of taking risks with public safety” (in case you missed it, business was the operative word there). As such, the CDCR is still unprepared to release inmates regardless of their incapacitation. Yet after six months of hand wringing and public wishing that the Department would move on the new legislation (thus saving the state millions), a newspaper report comes out and Kelso can suddenly get the attention – and acquiescence – of Corrections Department Secretary Matthew Cate? In just one day, Kelso got Cate to agree to schedule parole hearings for 10 catatonics so we can cut ‘em loose and start saving. Not that any hearings have been calendared yet, but so far all of the protocols and procedures that had been hindering progress were wiped away in a single morning’s meeting? Now that’s the power of journalism!

Frankly, I’m curious about the mechanics here. Did Kelso use Dolan’s initial story to convince Cate to elbow the guard’s union into offering even this compromise? If so, go Jack Dolan! But good God, how absurdly Cate must have prostrated himself before the CCPOA Executive Council! Did he call president Mike Jimenez to fret over the articles and ask what he was supposed to tell all these shirt-tuggers?

And I’m sorry Mr. Kelso: you can’t have it both ways. You don’t get to stand on the corner with the man on the street and chime in on the obvious while having the power to make a phone call and change things. I know you’ve improved emergency medical response and classifications, somewhat diminished negligent care, reduced clinical nonchalance, and lowered the death rate in California prisons from 249 per 100,000 in 2008 to 216 in 2010. But aren’t you there to go beyond token achievements? You’re should be getting better, not more comfortable. And what’s with the $137 million the state has given you for medical IT infrastructure? For three years now your people can neither account for nor say how much of it went toward the 19 projects for which it was earmarked. What about the construction of prison health facilities, a pillar of your 2008 Turnaround Plan of Action?

Given Team Kelso’s lack of headway, it doesn’t surprise me that one of your excuses implicates the state’s employee furlough program. Where have we heard that before? Oh right, the CCPOA. They haven’t stopped bellyaching (and launching gubernatorial recalls) about the furlough program since its inception. But the very worst excuse for why your costly projects have gone unfulfilled is – wait for it – prison overcrowding. REALLY? That’s what you’ve got? My heart shriveled a little to think our leaders are either this irrevocably in on the scheme or dumb as doornails. So I wonder, Mr. Kelso, when you leave your meetings at the state capitol, are you laughing at them, or are they laughing at you? ‘Cause the only thing I’m sure of is that us taxpayers aren’t laughing.