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Health Care Costs Rising As Calif. Prison Population Ages

Health care for inmates in California prisons cost the state nearly$2 billion last year. It's doubled over the past three years. Stricter sentencing laws are keeping people in prison longer, and they're getting old and sick.


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Life In Prison

There are five or six wheelchairs and a couple of walkers parked outside the narrow cell doors that line this cell block. A frail looking man with a cane struggles to walk into his cell. The guard tells us he’s had a stroke. For a moment you think this can’t be prison. But it is.

This is the California Medical Facility or CMF, in Vacaville. One of the state’s 33 prisons. It has the largest prison hospital and houses California’s oldest and sick inmates.

Richard Lauranzano is an inmate at CMF. He is one of 35,000 inmates serving a life sentence. In 2004 he learned he had stage 4 non-hodgkins lymphoma.

"The prison system saved my life. They sent me to outside hospitals, they never hesitated. I went through extreme chemo. And I beat it," said Lauranzano.

Last year, the state spent $500 million on outside hospital visits for inmates -- about 25 percent of its total health care budget.

“We’re dealing with a corrections population that is aging in prison," said Clark Kelso, the receiver in charge of health care in prisons.

A federal judge put a receivership in place in 2006, after a court ruled California prisons were so over-crowded inmates did not have proper access to health care and mental health services -- a violation of their constitutional rights.

Kelso’s biggest challenge is to figure out how to treat the growing number of aging inmates without breaking the bank. Inmates over the age of 55 have doubled in the past 10 years. The number of men over 60 will triple in the next eight years.

“So we’ve seen explosion in cardiovascular problems, an explosion in diabetes," he said. "We have a lot of inmates who have very serious liver disease because of an abuse of drugs and alcohol. But they’re all at the age now where you have those issues plus other chronic conditions."

Inmates are growing old behind bars for two reasons. Few lifers are granted parole. Government statistics show more than 7,000 were eligible in 2008. Fewer than 60 were released.

And because of a series of laws enacted in the past three decades that have lengthened sentences.

Beginning in the 70s with determinate sentencing -- a law that mandated minimum sentences.

The homicide rate had nearly double from the mid-60s to the late 70s. Charles Manson was a household name.

"Murder was on the rampage,” said Harriet Salarno. Salarno was among those rallying for change after her 18-year-old daughter was murdered in 1979. She founded the group Crime Victims United and raised enough money to hire a full time lobbyist in Sacramento.

"Public safety is in our constitution and it’s the priority and it must be served first,” said Salarno.

But long sentences come with a price. Clark Kelso’s office is finalizing plans to build a new billion-dollar prison in Stockton to house old inmates in need of chronic care and those in need of mental health services. And he’s looking for alternatives.

“The possibility of having such things as medical parole," said Kelso.

In other words, private nursing homes with security. That kind of initiative would have to be approved by legislators. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger may already be leaning in that direction. In his State of the State Address earlier this month, Schwarzenegger said his administration was contemplating private options to bring down prison costs.

“Being 62 in prison is a struggle. You get sicker,” said Lauranzano.

In the meantime, Richard Lauranzano has developed a heart condition since his cancer has been in remission. He is now meeting with specialists, contemplating surgery.

Lauranzano is serving a 50 year sentence for seven counts of sexual offenses against children and murder.


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