Receiver ranks Soledad facility near top of repair list; Salinas Valley State Prison has made improvements
BY MARIA INES ZAMUDIO
SOLEDAD – The two prisons stand smack in the middle of the Salinas Valley, separated by just 6 miles of fertile farmland.
But when it comes to the condition of their health-care facilities, the lockups are worlds apart, a state analysis shows.
Of California’s 33 prisons, the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad is the fifth most in need of immediate health-care-facility upgrades, according to the California Prison Health Care Receivership.
Salinas Valley State Prison, on the other hand, is among the prisons that need the least improvement to its medical facilities, said Luis Patiño, spokesman for the receivership, a nonprofit created by a federal court to improve the state prison health-care system.
The receivership office took over the prison health-care system in 2006 after a federal court found inmates were dying of neglect or malpractice at a rate of about one each week.
Prison receiver J. Clark Kelso has asked the state for $8 billion to complete the updates. But the state’s $42 billion deficit is holding up the projects.
CTF’s health-care updates could come with a price tag of $43 million, according to CTF Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joseph Chudy. The receiver is still determining the cost of SVSP’s updates.
In the past 10 years, inmates have filed 170 health-care lawsuits against Salinas Valley State Prison.
Fifty-four inmates have filed similar lawsuits against the Correctional Training Facility.
Salinas Valley State Prison is ranked near the bottom of the upgrade list because the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation improved its medical facilities after it settled a class-action lawsuit in 2002 that ultimately led to the creation of the receivership.
Marcelino Plata, an inmate at SVSP, sued the state
alleging that he was denied proper treatment for his injuries in 1997. He was working in the prison’s kitchen when he fell and hurt his knee, head and back. For two years, he was forced to go back to his cell without medical treatment and was forced to continue to work while in pain, the lawsuit said.
The state agreed to make changes to its medical facilities as part of the settlement. CDCR made a series of medical updates to SVSP facilities in 2003.
Three years after the settlement, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco found that medical malpractice and neglect continued to kill an average of one inmate each week. To improve the prison’s health-care system, he transferred control to a court-appointed receivership office.
But the process of bringing the prison up to constitutional standards is far from over.
CTF is one of the oldest prisons in the state, making it expensive to upgrade the medical facilities.
The lockup was first used as an interment camp to detain German nationals in the 1940s during World War II. Then, in the mid-1950s, the central facility was built next to the former interment camp and the state turned the buildings into a prison.
The prison also has a high number of inmates serving life sentences – about 2,200, or one-third of its total population – which contributes to the cost of providing medical services. Older prisoners need more medical attention due to chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart-related problems, said Chudy, the chief medical officer.
Limited space is also a big issue. CTF was built for 3,301 inmates but it now houses more than double that number – 6,997 inmates.
The lack of space has forced doctors to use whatever room they can find.
In the north facility, a secondary chapel is now being used as a nursing station and will soon be used for physical therapy, too. Doctors are now using a day room for performing biopsies. Inmates who want to see a doctor have to wait outside the medical building.
In the central facility, where the halls still smell of chlorine after an outbreak of the stomach flu last month, a tiny cell holds dozens of inmates at a time as they waiting to be seen by a doctor. Doctors themselves have to share a tiny, closet-like office in between inmate visits.
The $43 million will be used to demolish and rebuild the medical building in the north facility and expand the space in the medical building in the central facility, Chudy said.
Salinas Valley State Prison’s medical facilities are much more modern and roomier.
After the Plata lawsuit settlement, the first prisons the state started upgrading were the Level 4 maximum-security prisons, including SVSP. The state had to improve the medical facilities first because of the Plata lawsuit, said Alison Hardy, an attorney representing inmates in the Plata class-action lawsuit for the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to state prisoners.
‘Should be further along’
But SVSP has not complied with all the court-mandated updates, Hardy said.
Space in the medical facilities is limited and doctors don’t see inmates in a timely manner, she said.
“They should be further along,” said Hardy, who visited the prison in February.
In November, the indictment of the prison’s medical chief and five other doctors accused of defrauding state taxpayers of more than $160,000 has left the medical facilities short-staffed.
The doctors were accused of lying about their work hours. Having fewer doctors probably has made it harder for the SVSP to schedule doctor’s appointments requested by inmates within the 14 days mandated by the court, she said.
In his efforts to persuade the state to pay for the court-mandated updates, Kelso said the state will save up to $100 million annually by sending fewer sick inmates to outside hospitals.
Last year, running the health-care system at CTF cost the state $57 million. Of that, about $17 million went to pay for inmates to receive care in hospitals such as Natividad Medical Center and Salinas Valley Memorial in Salinas and other local hospitals. Doctors send between 480 and 500 inmates to these hospitals every month, Chudy said.
Natividad treats an average of 2,700 inmates from both prisons each year. Those visits would cost about $34 million, if not for a confidential negotiated rate between the hospital and the state, said Carol Adams, assistant administrator for planning and institutional development.
Chudy argues that the amount the state spends on health care for prisoners could decrease if prisons had more resources and doctors could care for them there, he said.
“Imagine, it costs $2,000 just for the ambulance to take an inmate to a hospital,” he said.
That number doesn’t include the hospital’s charges and the salary for two correctional officers who guard each inmate while he or she is in the hospital.
CTF improvements cited
Medical services at CTF have improved since the receivership took over, Chudy said. The receiver filled many of the vacant positions. He hired 28 nurses and doubled the number of doctors from six to 14. Just four positions remain vacant, Chudy said.
Having more doctors inside also decreases the need to contract with outside physicians who usually get paid more because they earn an hourly fee, he said.
Construction of a new pharmacy, twice the size of the current one, will make the process of filling prescriptions more efficient. The total cost for the pharmacy is about $170,000, he said.
Right now, about 14 pharmacy technicians work in a room the size of a typical master bedroom with shelves filled with medications. Pharmacy technicians have limited room to walk, they sometimes sit on the floor to work and use small spaces on tables to count pills by hand to fill prescriptions.
“We are trying to have decent working conditions,” Chudy said.
The staff is doing a great job with the limited resources they have, Chudy said, and the prison conditions will change.
“We are hopeful that the receiver will be able to get the funds,” he said. “This is the cost of doing business and I’m not apologetic about it.”
•The Associated Press contributed to this report.