Colonel Kelso Heads Up the River

…and takes a boatload of your tax dollars with him.

Original Story: L.A. Times

Remember the ”extreme prejudice” scene in Apocalypse Now? The one where Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard character is ordered to head north to find and kill the rogue Colonel Kurtz? Nothing comes more to mind when reading about the adventures of J. Clark Kelso, the court-appointed receiver, or overseer, for healthcare in California’s state prisons. Kelso was sent up the river too, ordered to find and kill the cause of the prison healthcare crisis.

In the movie, Captain Willard loses his marbles before he reaches the Colonel’s orgiastic blood camp, where he finds Lieutenant Colby, the Army assassin who’d preceded him with the very same execution orders. Colby has become so looney he can’t even say hello, thanks to the charming Colonel’s generosity with his opium, women, and tribalized chain of command. In fact, having found Colonel Kurtz a source of homicidal enlightenment, Colby switched sides. Willard tries to avoid the same fate with the muttered mantra, “never get out of the boat,” but he’s nonetheless tempted by the same turn-ons and dropouts.

Has J. Clark Kelso gotten out of the boat? Did he learn along the way that, after years of neglect, prison healthcare simply can’t be restored to constitutional standards, and so switched sides? From the state legislators to the feds, from the construction consultants to the state Probation and Parole departments, and even to the Prison Reform movement, there are so many players and so much money involved in California’s prisons that Kelso could have been drawn in any number of directions since his appointment on January 23, 2008. Some are starting to wonder if he has been.

Furthering the parallel to the film, Kelso had a predecessor, too: one with the same marching orders who effectively pulled a Lieutenant Colby. Receiver number one, Robert Sillen, had been given extensive authority by U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson to stop a prison system that earlier examinations concluded was killing one inmate a week through misconduct or negligence (“every six to seven days,” wrote Judge Henderson in his June 30, 2005, decision). Awkward questions were later raised, however, about Sillen’s travel claim reimbursements, as well as those claimed by employees and consultants. The offensive annual salaries of Sillen’s staffers became an issue as well, and the Sacramento Bee reported that Sillen paid himself $775,000 during the 15-month period of his appointment that began in 2006. When Henderson withdrew Sillen’s authority in 2008 for his lack of progress, his role was retroactively described as solely investigative and evaluative. The real cleanup crew was on its way in, insinuated the court, and Sillen faded into the jungle.

Kelso’s first big move was to ask then Governor Schwarzenegger to invoke his emergency powers mid-budget crisis to immediately provide $7 billion for improved inmate healthcare. $7 billion! I can’t imagine how Kelso made this request. Did he run into the room, lock the door and throw his back against it, shouting, “Jeeesus H. Christ, Governor! You’ve got to get some money in there! The filthy animals need lots of it! No, you fool! Don’t open the door, they’re nine feet tall!” (Never mind Apocalypse Now, this sounds more like Blazing Saddles.) A month later, after Schwarzenegger turned him down and Kelso was suing for the money in federal court, the amount had become an even more jaw-dropping $8 billion.

When a state Senator, already wrangling with the Governor’s office over a $15 billion plus state deficit, laughed at Kelso for his request, Kelso didn’t even blink. He fired back, citing a need to pay the guards who would supervise the patients the new and renovated inmate medical facilities would hold.

Ah, the guards. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association had been at odds with the Governor since his taking office, or more accurately, since candidate Schwarzenegger surprised it by refusing the powerful union’s campaign contributions. Having given over $2 million to Gray Davis’s successful campaign in 1998 and $1 million+ to Governor Pete Wilson before that, the union criticized Arnold straightaway. It declared him a failure and paid for television attack ads. Schwarzenegger, in turn, denied overtime pay for guards during the budget impasse and refused to say he’d exempt CCPOA members from potential statewide pay reductions. He also hinted at concerns with renewing the prison guards’ contracts, later adding, “I will not get intimidated.” Meanwhile, the leading cause of inmate deaths at the time was, of all things, asthma.

The union ultimately filed a petition to recall the Governor and the bitter feud continued. So when Kelso commenced to justify his $8 billion in expenses, could it have been because he’d become a CCPOA pawn? He wouldn’t have been the first. Thirty-five percent of the CCPOA’s $21.9 million annual union dues is devoted to funding the union’s political activities, including public relations; lobbying; funding affiliate groups; contributing ‘soft money’ to political parties, political events, and debates; and giving direct contributions to political candidates. Just not Arnie.

A common perception is that if ever there were a long shadow of persuasion and polymorphism in California prison policy it would come from the prison guard’s union. But the CCPOA is only the beginning. Right behind it are the financiers of prison privatization, from whom the CCPOA has long protected its contract turf. And let’s not forget the California Prison Industry Authority, or any of the other trades that depend on lawmakers and the Department of Corrections to play ball. Squeaking like a mouse among these agendas is the Prison Reform Movement itself, traditionally sidelined as activist and “mushy-headed liberalism” (though that’s changing as conservatives get more and more involved in the spending side of the issue). For now, Captain Willard’s self-protective motto aside, if we remember to “follow the money,” we won’t find many prison reformists where the river ends.

The point is, with so many claims on his time and attention, Receiver Kelso has apparently found it difficult so far to execute his orders: ensuring that the quality of inmate medical care gets raised to a standard that “no longer violates the U.S. Constitution.” Is he, like Captain Willard, actually becoming more and more like that which he was sent to change? One thing is certain: unless Kelso develops and sticks to an almost insect-like single-mindedness, it’s not likely he’ll be able to accomplish his mission.

When frustrated state officials recently pointed out that they hadn’t seen much for the blank checks Kelso has been given to date, they wanted answers. Yet when questioned about his ambitious 2008 solutions that never materialized, Kelso made about as much sense as Lieutenant Colby. In fact, you’d have thought that either ‘ol wheeler-dealer Robert Sillen had come back from the jungle to speak for Kelso or that the river had claimed another man’s sanity. One way to reduce costs quickly, Kelso told legislators, would be to allow him to release the sickest patients. “You let me unload 1,500 inmates, and I’ll give you a 30% drop in costs,” he said.

Uh, that’s the best you could do for millions upon millions of dollars? That tired old recommendation to put the problem back out onto the streets (and no less on the taxpayers)? You’d think we might have purchased a fresher answer for that much money; if this is all Kelso’s got, someone definitely got out of the boat. And at this rate of spending, there’s no excuse for California not to immediately replace him with an overseer who can stay in the boat, come up with innovative solutions, and stand up for us taxpayers.