Our View: Health facility near Stockton will improve inmates' care

June 30, 2013 

Some Californians think that state prison inmates are pampered. A federal judge didn't see it that way at all, and in 2006 ordered California to substantially improve the medical treatment provided to inmates and to reduce prison overcrowding.

More than anything, that court order is the reason behind the massive new prison hospital that will soon open on the former California Youth Authority property east of the Stockton Airport.

The California Health Care Facility, as it is formally known, was dedicated Tuesday in a ceremony that was mostly celebratory but in which Jeffrey Beard, the head of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, made reference to the federal mandate. He said the $900 million investment should satisfy the federal court's concerns about the state's commitment to provide proper medical, dental and mental health treatments for inmates.

"Is what you see behind me deliberate indifference?" Beard asked rhetorically.

Beard said that the federal receiver overseeing state prison medical care was invited to the open house but did not attend.

The facility will serve the sickest 1,700 inmates from the other 33 prisons around the state. Some may be transferred in for short-term treatment. Others will spend the remainder of their sentences at the Stockton facility. There is a 29-bed dialysis unit, for example, to serve those with kidney failure. Eight of the 60-bed housing units are devoted to psychiatric care.

The facility is both a hospital and a prison — presenting a dual challenge for Warden Ron Rackley and the staff of seasoned correctional officers he has assembled. There will be no rookie officers here, because the facility will house an unusual mix of violent and repeat offenders — from different gangs and parts of the state. What they have in common are serious medical and mental health ailments. Rackley said the only male prisoners who will be excluded are death-row inmates and juveniles.

The dual purpose is evident in the housing units, where a cell — or room, depending on whose vernacular is in use — might be as spacious as those found in a typical hospital but includes dual locks on the doors and a steel toilet-basin fixture intended to be destruction-proof.

At the center of the campus is a massive building devoted to medical and dental clinics, plus a kitchen and visiting area. The whole complex is encircled by guard towers and two high fences topped with razor wire. Between them is a smaller electrical fence that would be lethal to the touch. No doubt, it's a high-security place.

For our region, this facility also represents a much-needed boost for the economy, especially in San Joaquin County. Corrections officials say construction of the 144-acre facility provided about 5,500 jobs. Some 2,500 people will work there once it opens. While the corrections officers are coming from other prisons, many of the other employees were hired locally.

The project also puts back to use a large site that had been idle for several years.

With the sickest inmates-patients moved to the Stockton facility, other state prisons will have more space for other inmates. That is good news or bad news — depending on your perspective.

Tuesday morning, a small group of people demonstrated along Austin Road, calling for an end to prison expansion. Meanwhile, local law enforcement officials are still unhappy about realignment — the dramatic shift of low-level offenders to county jails, resulting in many felons not serving anywhere near their full sentences.

The anti-prison advocates contend that the poor health care is the direct result of putting too many people behind bars.

"Governor Brown has shown where his real commitment is: It has nothing to do with the health of prisoners, their families or the communities to which they'll return. His only commitment when it comes to prisons is to continue the growth of a system that is killing poor Californians of color," Sammy Nunez of Fathers & Families of San Joaquin said in a statement issued by Californians United for a Responsible Budget.

What remains to be seen is whether the state's high wages and generous benefits will pull so many medical professionals to the prison that county and private clinics will find it hard to hire and keep their employees.

This prison hospital was expensive to build and will be expensive to operate, but the state has an obligation to provide adequate health care for inmates, and it could do a better job of that with one large hospital than creating minihospitals around California. We hope that the federal receiver will see that the state has made strides and will live up to its duty and should run its own facilities.

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