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California's Costly Prisons

California's Costly Prisons
California spends 11 percent of its budget on its overcrowded prisons. We'll look at why costs continue to rise particularly for the aging prison population.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The cost of California's prisons featured prominently in Governor Schwarzenegger's State of the State address last week. He criticized state policies that spend more on incarcerating criminals than on higher education. But for years state politicians have been singing a different tune. They've been winning elections by promising to lock up criminals and throw away the key. Now, that the bill has come due, the question is, can California turn its policies and its prisons around before the California prison system goes bust? The state's overcrowded and expensive prison system is the focus of the KPBS Envision series. Joining me now to talk about our investigation is KPBS reporter Joanne Faryon. And welcome back, Joanne.

JOANNE FARYON (KPBS Reporter): Thanks, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: So, if you can in a nutshell, can you tell us why costs for housing California’s prisoners are so high?

FARYON: Well, a couple of thing, basically, as you said in your intro, that a number of policy changes, changes to the law, extended sentences. Probably one of the most significant changes happened in the late seventies. We introduced determinate sentencing. So no longer were people convicted of murder being sentenced to seven to life and being released, say, after eight years. They were being – There was a basic minimum that they had to serve and also a maximum. Things evolved over time. We looked at one report that documented all of these legislative changes, quite literally, pages and pages of new laws that extend sentences. Now, it’s – if you meet somebody who’s been convicted of murder, they’re serving 25 to life and what we found in our visit to the prisons, 25 to life often can mean 30 years, even 40 years that these people are serving.

CAVANAUGH: Now you have visited a number of prisons around the state for this series. Where have you gone and what are you finding out?

FARYON: We went to Donovan State Prison here in San Diego County. We went up to the Women’s Institution just outside of Riverside County. And then we went to the California Medical Facility, which is a prison, in Vacaville, and that’s just outside of Sacramento. We went to three prisons. We wanted to get a – we wanted to interview some women who’d been in prison for a long time. We went, of course, to Donovan, being local and probably typical of a lot of the state prisons. And then we went to Vacaville because that prison houses older and sick inmates. Further, to the earlier response, why is it so expensive, in that prison what you’ll find, these older inmates who are in need of a lot of healthcare, and it’s that healthcare cost that is really driving up costs these days.

CAVANAUGH: Now you saw these three prisons. Did you see any similarities between them?

FARYON: No. Well, I – Obviously some similarities but, excuse me, all three were pretty different. At Donovan, we did see firsthand, excuse me, we did see firsthand the overcrowding. We went to one gymnasium that had been converted to basically house a number of inmates and you see bunks stacked close together and all of these inmates just sort of standing around. You really, really got the sense that, okay, they have no place to put these guys. When we went to the women’s prison, it felt like a college campus from the 1950s. There’s a lot of movement, the women are walking, there’s a inner court area with grass. It felt very different. Up at CMF in Vacaville, again very different. It felt more like a prison than the women’s institution but you – what we saw was just wheelchair after wheelchair, walkers, canes. We would go to cell blocks and there are quite literally wheelchairs parked outside of cell blocks.

CAVANAUGH: Now, let’s talk a little bit more about the inmates that you saw in that situation who have been inside for a very long time. They’re now senior citizens. You brought back some of their comments for us.

FARYON: Yes, so we were able to speak to probably about six of them. And the questions we were asking were basically how old are you, how long have you been here, what was your original sentence, and we also asked them about health conditions. And I just want to let people know, we are – KPBS is in no position to sort of comment in terms of whether or not these men or women should still be in prison or not. We don’t know the details of their crime. The only thing we’re able to confirm actually is the conviction under the criminal code that landed them in prison. So we don’t know what kind of inmate they’ve been as well. So having said all of that, we wanted to meet people who represented these statistics that we’ve been reading about. So this now, what you’re going to hear next, is a compilation of three of these comments. And the first comment you’ll hear is from Antonio Sullivan, and he’s serving a life sentence. He’s a three striker.

ANTONIO SULLIVAN (California State Inmate): I got heart trouble, high blood pressure, asthma, and God knows what else, swelling all in the legs, half-blind. But I’m not no youngster no more. I’m a man in my seventies, and I see peoples falling like flies around – right here in this institution every day.

RICHARD LORENZANO (California State Inmate): My name’s Richard Lorenzano. I have been – I’m 62 and I’ve been in prison for 27 years. It was a conspiracy to commit murder. Being 62 in prison is a struggle. You get sicker. I had cancer about four years ago, stage four, the prison system saved my life. They sent me out to outside hospitals. They never hesitated. I went through extreme chemo, and I beat it. Prison has spent – Without exaggeration, the prison has probably spent $800,000 on me.

ANDREW O. CHAVEZ (California State Inmate): My name is Andrew O. Chavez. I’m 58 years old. And I’m here for a three-strike possession. I’ve been here for about 15 years. I got cirrhosis of the liver. Hoping that they would give me a compassionate release and that’s what I’m waiting for. I would love to go home and die out there than to die here.

CAVANAUGH: So that’s your compilation of several people that you met up in Vacaville when you were really touring the medical facility up there for really old and sick prisoners.

FARYON: That’s right, and I want to speak to one of the numbers that one of the inmates suggested, and that was Richard Lorenzano when he said, you know, without exaggeration, they probably spent $800,000 on me. So just, if you’re thinking, well, that’s impossible, I also have some statistics that the Receiver provided for us when we met with him in Sacramento. Clark Kelso, he is in charge of healthcare in prisons. A federal court appointed him, they appointed the receivership to take over healthcare because a panel of federal judged ruled in 2006 that inmates weren’t getting access to healthcare, mental health services, and that violated their constitutional rights. So he provided us with some data that shows about 6,000 inmates who in the fiscal year 2008 and 2009 had to go to outside hospitals for their care because they didn’t have those services within the prisons. At the top end of the graph, there are about a thousand inmates who incurred costs on those visits upwards of, some of them, a million dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars per visit, totaling $500 million in outside hospital fees. So to think that one inmate can’t cost the system $800,000, well, they can and we have the numbers that show that.

CAVANAUGH: You have a clip from the Receiver but before we get to that, I do want to address that issue of compassionate release that Angelo Chavez (sic), in that clip that we just heard, was talking about. What is compassionate release and how does that fit into the cost problem?

FARYON: Well, there is a regulation that says if an inmate is within six months of dying, then the clinician in the prison fills out an application to have their sentence either shortened or they get out on parole. They – That application then gets submitted to the Director of Corrections and then finally it goes to a judge. I can tell you that in 2009 there were 57 such applications submitted and there were three inmates who actually ended up being discharged under compassionate release. There are a number of reasons that perhaps more weren’t. Some of them include sometimes the inmate dies, sometimes it’s withdrawn. The judge also looks at the nature of the crime the – whether or not that inmate might still be a threat to society. So for various reasons, it can be denied. We actually have the grand total. From 1991 to 2009, there were 1070 applications under compassionate release and there were 181 and 129 inmates either paroled or discharged, totalling 315.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as I said, you did speak with the Receiver Clark Kelso. What did he tell you about the state of healthcare in prisons?

FARYON: Well, basically it’s – it cost $1.8 billion last year, that’s how much it cost the state to provide healthcare. That – And we’re looking at a total budget of about $10 billion, it’s just over $10 billion for the total corrections budget, so that’s almost 20% of that budget that’s going towards healthcare. We talked about the aging population. This is the problem, that as long as the trend continues and the trend is this population over 55 that will double again in another seven years, it just keeps going up and up and up, they’re the population that requires the most healthcare. But basically the state just can’t keep – they can’t afford to keep paying for this kind of care. There’s got to be some solution, some other alternatives. And so we talked about alternatives and so what you’ll hear him now is suggesting something called medical parole.

CLARK KELSO (California State Receiver): There are alternatives and those are things that we are working with the state to try to develop, a 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. A number of states have implemented programs such as that which, I think, we need to look at out here in California. Now, that’s a state policy judgment that would require legislative action but we’re having conversations with the administration and with legislators about how we can provide appropriate care to this aging prison population without breaking the bank because, ultimately, I don’t think the state can sustain that level of prison expenditures. I think we have to find alternative solutions.

CAVANAUGH: That was the Receiver for the California State Prisons, Clark Kelso. And I’m wondering, Joanne, is this what maybe the governor means when he talks about privatizing some aspects of prisons?

FARYON: Yes, I’m wondering that, too, and have made several requests to the governor’s office for an interview to ask exactly that because notice that the Receiver said private medical facilities. Of course, we asked him more about that concept, why private? And this is why. First of all, they’ve had some proposals from companies that say, look, we can house these inmates cheaper. We can put a fence around it and make sure they don’t get out and provide them with this healthcare. But the biggest cost savings, once you transfer an inmate out of a prison, a state prison, suddenly the federal government is responsible for part of the cost of that person’s healthcare. The Receiver estimates if they get transferred to a private medical facility outside of a state prison that the feds could pick up between 40 and 50% of the tab for that inmate.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So that’s where the cost savings would come in for California.

FARYON: Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: We have just gotten the tip of the iceberg here, Joanne, but I’m afraid we’re out of time. I want to let everyone know that our discussion about the issue of the state prisons continues on KPBS. Later this month, These Days will be bringing you a program taped at Donovan State Prison, and Joanne Faryon hosts our Envision special “Life In Prison” on KPBS-TV Monday, January 25th at 9:00 p.m. And, Joanne, thank you so much for being here.

FARYON: Thanks, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And we’d love your comments at And stay with us because coming up, we learn about the controversial transborder immigrant tool as These Days continues right here on KPBS.