Millions Wasted?

Editorial: Millions to guard incapacitated inmates? Crazy
Grotesque cases make it clear that state needs to stop this wasteful practice now

Published 12:00 am PDT Saturday, June 21, 2008

Let's see. The state has a $17 billion budget deficit. Its prisons are overcrowded, and a federal court has taken over its broken prison health care system. Yet the state is paying millions of dollars to incarcerate inmates who are quadriplegic, in a coma or in a persistent vegetative state.

Crazy? You bet.

Worse, although they pose no threat to anybody, the state is double-guarding these incapacitated inmates round-the-clock in their hospital beds.

A June 18 story in The Bee details one example. Prisoner Jackson Phaysaleum is in a persistent vegetative state. From Dec. 4 through May 29, guarding him in a hospital cost the state $410,112 in overtime expenses $2,317 a day.

Department policy requires that maximum security inmates not in the prison be guarded by two officers. For a two-day hospital stay, the overtime pay would be a hassle but not a major problem. But we're talking about a long-term incapacitated prisoner.

The prison is allocated only a certain number of positions, so it takes two guards off regular prison duty and posts them at the hospital. So why not call the department in Sacramento and say, listen, here's the choice: either pay $2,317 a day indefinitely in overtime until we can get the prisoner into a facility that has regular medical guarding (which is already paid for) or find a way for us to have guards at regular pay. Unfortunately, says prison spokesman Lt. Xavier Cano, "That's not the way the system is built."

That needs to change. Situations like this do come up. The department and legislators need to commit to solving this including ensuring that the prison guard contract is not an obstacle.

Then, there's a more important issue: No purpose is served by the continued incarceration of these inmates. Assembly Bill 1539 by Assemblyman Paul Krekorian, D-Burbank, signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007, was supposed to establish a process to release inmates who are permanently medically incapacitated and pose no threat to public safety.

So far, the AB1539 process has been a dismal failure. A case in point is Steven Charles Martinez, a quadriplegic inmate, whose imprisonment costs about $500,000 a year. The Board of Parole Hearings on June 17 declined to recommend his release.

Krekorian and eight other legislators (including Sen. Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento) sent a letter to the governor last Friday expressing concern that the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the Board of Parole Hearings are disregarding the law.

In Phaysaleum's case, it took six months before a prison doctor initiated the release process. On May 20 a doctor determined that he was "not expected to progress to a minimally conscious state." The warden signed off June 18 and now the matter rests with the Director of Adult Institutions and the Board of Parole Hearings, which will consider release.

California is spending inordinate amounts of money incarcerating and guarding people who pose no threat to public safety. And the state is taking guards off more important security duties to do so. As Krekorian said Thursday, "This is an extraordinary misallocation of correctional resources." It's wrong. It's wasteful. It's just plain crazy.

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