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Soaring Costs For California's Failing Prison System

Soaring Costs For California's Failing Prison System

GLORIA PENNER (Host): In his ‘State of the State’ speech, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger also talked about the amount of money California is spending on its prisons. The state’s overcrowded and expensive prison system is the focus of KPBS’s Envision series. And joining me now to talk about our investigation is KPBS reporter, Joanne Faryon. So welcome back, Joanne.

JOANNE FARYON (KPBS news): Thanks, Gloria.

PENNER: And before we begin, lets hear what Governor Schwarzenegger had to say to say about what the state is spending on prisons.


GOVERNOR ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: 30 years ago, 10% of the general fund went to higher education and only 3% went to prisons. Today, almost 11% goes to prisons and only 7.5% goes to higher education. Spending 45% more on prisons than universities is no way to proceed into the future. So I will submit to you a constitutional amendment so that never again do we spend a greater percentage of our money on prisons than on higher education. (Applause)

PENNER: How is the governor going to reverse the rising cost of operating the state prison?

FARYON: Well, in his address he talked about privatizing prisons. He didn’t give a lot of detail. But really, after researching this issue for the past several weeks, I don’t understand how privatization will necessarily fix this problem. According to the numbers that we’ve been crunching, the data that we’ve collected, the issue of rising costs really seems to be the increasing number of inmates. Especially the increasing number of old and sick inmates.

PENNER: Why are old and sick inmates adding to the cost?

FARYON: Well, what happened in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s we was a series of laws., changes to the legislature that saw sentences increasing. And the Little Hoover Commission – it was a state commission – looked at some of these laws and there are quite literally pages and pages and pages of changes to the law that added time to sentences. So what we saw were really more people going to prison longer. Now the average cost of an inmate is about $50,000 a year. But once that inmate reached 55 years old, it triples to $150,000 a year. And that’s largely because of age related illness. So we’re spending a lot of money on providing healthcare for these inmates.


PENNER: So what's happening in the prisons really matches what's happening out in the civilian world. The older you get, the more you spend on medical care.

FARYON: Yes, and keep in mind that these inmates come in with a lot of health problems that the general population doesn’t necessarily have in the same numbers because of past behavior. Things like drug abuse, alcoholism. They see a lot of liver disease, a lot of hepatitis C, a lot of HIV in the prison population.

PENNER: You talked about your research. You did more than just read about it, you actually went to Sacramento. So where were you in Sacramento?

FARYON: Yes, we met with the receiver. And the receiver is in charge of providing healthcare to inmates in prisons. A little bit of background, in 2006 there was a court case. A panel of federal judges decided that inmates were not receiving the healthcare and mental health services that they should be under the constitution, and put all the healthcare under the receiver. His name is Clark Kelso. We interviewed him. We also went to the California Medical Facility, and that is a prison in Vacaville up north that houses mostly ill inmates, old inmates. It also has a hospice. We met several inmates serving life sentences for murder. Their original sentence back in the 60’s and 70’s was seven to life, and now 30 and 40 years later they're still there. They're not getting out.

PENNER: You actually got to speak to some of the inmates to get their stories?

FARYON: Absolutely. And we went to the hospice too and spoke to some of the dying inmates.

PENNER: So is that all going to be in your report?

FARYON: Yes, it’s going to be in our report. You're also going to see a lot of it on television, on our website, and hear about it on radio. Right now we have Wendy Fry, one of our producers, crunching the numbers. She's going to tell you exactly how much an inmate costs from the time they’re incarcerated to the time they die in prison. And these days we’re seeing more inmates who quite literally are in there for life. Life means life in California.

PENNER: Well, give us a little preview. When you spoke to them, what is it that they had to say?

FARYON: You know, there were inmates who were in their sixties who were serving close to 40 years. They had committed their original crime when they were, 20, 21 years old. A lot of murderers originally sentences to seven years to life. They thought they might do seven years, they thought they might do ten years. Now they're doing 30 and 40 years. They’ve been before the parole board but are repeatedly denied parole. Keeping in mind these are people who’ve done terrible crimes, we also spoke with a woman who started a crime support victims rights group in California. And she will point out, look, the reason that these inmates are spending so much time in prison is because they did terrible things. And back in the 60’s and early 70’s, when we were letting murderers out after six and seven years and some of them went on to recommit, there was an outcry. And this woman’s daughter was murdered in 1979. Since that time, she has raised money for full time lobbyists in Sacramento to point out to legislators people want criminals locked up for long periods of time.

PENNER: Ok. So just briefly, is there any sign that the laws will change?

FARYON: No this is what makes the governor’s address so fascinating. That constitutional amendment to say lets spend less money on prisons. Unless we address these sentencing, I don't know how that’s going to happen. And Clark Kelso, the receiver, doesn’t know how that’s going to happen. He's already warning that come 2013, there's not going to be enough money to provide healthcare to these aging inmates.

PENNER: Material here for many programs. Thank you very much, Joanne Faryon.

FARYON: Thanks, Gloria.

PENNER: When they were at the state prison’s California Medical Facility in Vacaville earlier this week, our team of journalists received a firsthand account of the dilemma the state faces in dealing with its overcrowded and costly prisons. KPBS photojournalist, Guillermo Sevilla, produced this video essay that shows the complexity of the situation.

[sound of prison doors closing]

[Music: "Time sits through the hourglass through night and day. And I watch as the games people play."]

RICHARD LAURANZANO (Inmate): They didn’t give you life without. They didn’t give you the death penalty. They gave you 25 to life or 15 to life. That means you get out.

ANGELO CHAVEZ (Inmate): Hoping they give me a compassionate release. For them to take care of me it's costing probably in the thousands a day keeping me here.

CLARK KELSO (Prison Health Care Receiver): Possibility of having such things as medical parole for older inmates with chronic conditions whose release to a private medical facility would not pose a risk to public safety.

HARRIET SALARNO (Crime Victims California): Why they are in prison, ok, these are heinous crimes that they’ve committed. They are not rehabilitated.

DR. JOSEPH BICK (Chief Medical Director CMF): People have very strong opinions on all sides of this discussion. You certainly have people who have been victims personally or their family members of some very heinous crimes from some of the people who live in this facility. And they strongly feel that it doesn’t matter how old somebody gets or how sick they get or what their likelihood of reoffending is, they should spend the rest of their life in prison.

LAURANZANO: And there are a lot of guys like that, 70s, 75. They are no danger to anybody, not even using me now, they’re no danger, I mean they’re no danger but they’re still in prison.

PENNER: And you can see more reports from our special Envision Prison series at our website. That’s

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.