Despite medical parole law, hospitalized prisoners are costing California taxpayers millions

With California mired in a budget crisis, guarding incapacitated prisoners at outside hospitals continues to cost taxpayers millions as the state figures out how to implement a new medical parole law.


California corrections officers watch a pair of inmates at a Bay Area hospital. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)


By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times

March 2, 2011

Reporting from Vacaville, Calif.

A degenerative nerve disease has left 57-year-old California inmate Edward Ortiz semi-paralyzed in a private Bay Area hospital for the last year. The breathing tube in his throat tethers him to a ventilator at one end of the bed; steel bracelets shackle his ankles to safety rails at the other.

Still, California taxpayers are shelling out roughly $800,000 a year to prevent his escape. The guards watching Ortiz one day last week said department policy requires one corrections officer at the foot of his bed around the clock and another guard at the door. A sergeant also has to be there, to supervise.

“Some of this is ridiculous, but you can’t argue with policy,” said Corrections Officer Allan Roper as he stared down at the unconscious Ortiz, a convicted child molester who requires medical attention beyond the prison system’s capabilities.

Authorities have identified 25 “permanently medically incapacitated” inmates being treated at outside hospitals who are candidates for parole because they no longer pose a threat to the public. Californians will pay more than $50 million to treat them this year, between $19 million and $21 million of that for guards’ salaries, benefits and overtime, according to data from the federal receiver who oversees California prison healthcare.

The final amount will depend on how many of the guards are paid overtime.

In September, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a “medical parole” law designed to spare taxpayers the cost of guarding inmates like Ortiz and dozens of others who officials say are incapacitated. Some are in comas, others paraplegic.

If the prisoners were released from custody, the medical costs would shift to their families if they could afford to pay, or to other government programs if they could not. The expense of guarding the patients would be eliminated.

But the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has yet to schedule a parole hearing for even one such inmate.

“It’s maddening,” said State Sen. Mark Leno (D- San Francisco), who sponsored the bill that Schwarzenegger signed. “We have school districts on the verge of closing” because of the state’s budget crisis. “We don’t have millions of dollars to squander on this kind of nonsense.”

Terri McDonald, chief deputy secretary of adult operations for California prisons, said her department had been working with the receiver, appointed in 2005 after a federal court found that healthcare in the state’s prisons was tantamount to “cruel and unusual” punishment, to draft regulations to implement the new law.

Despite those efforts, McDonald would not predict when the first sick inmate might get a parole hearing. “These are complex public-safety regulations,” she said.

Nancy Kincaid, spokeswoman for receiver J. Clark Kelso, said Kelso is “anxious to have these regulations in place so we can maximize savings.”

Leno said he introduced the medical parole law to address concerns about the existing statute that allows “compassionate release” of prisoners who are permanently incapacitated or terminally ill with less than six months’ life expectancy.

Compassionate release has the same legal effect as completion of a prison sentence, meaning the former inmate can’t be sent back to prison unless he is convicted of another crime.

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2 thoughts on “Despite medical parole law, hospitalized prisoners are costing California taxpayers millions

  1. ‘Despite those efforts, McDonald would not predict when the first sick inmate might get a parole hearing. “These are complex public-safety regulations,” she said.’

    No, its not at all complex. What it really is is a cash cow for c/o overtime gravy money. Pulling a second shift by babysitting in a hospital is about as sweet as it gets. Who would want to rush to reduce such easy money? After all, their just POS inmates, right?


  2. In December, 2010, before this law went into effect, the Board of Parole Hearings held a secret “training session” with their chief legal council specifically on Leno’s bill. We attempted to gain access to this “training session” but were told the commissioners would be receiving “legal advice” on this issue and therefore it would be a closed to public meeting. At that time we wondered what legal advice they could be given if the bill was not yet in effect–now we know. They were being instructed on how to circumvent the intent of this legally passed, signed and codified legislation. So now who’s breaking the law?


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