Cost of Guarding Inmates in Private Hospitals Increasing, Mercury News Analysis Finds
The San Jose Mercury News on Saturday examined a Department of Corrections policy requiring that prison guards monitor inmates who are admitted to outside hospitals.
The department policy requires that two corrections officers -- one of whom must be armed -- guard inmates treated at private hospitals. Inmates typically are shackled to prevent escape. The guards generally are paid wages equivalent to overtime rates.
According to the Mercury News, the cost of complying with the policy has increased 61% since 1999 to an estimated $31 million this fiscal year. Of the policy's total cost, 87% is allocated for prison guard payment. The state's overall prison health care costs, which total about $1 billion annually, are the "fastest-growing portion" of the annual prison budget, the Mercury News reports. The prison budget currently is about $60 million over budget.
Corrections Department payments to private hospitals between 1999 and 2003 grew 21% to $113 million, according to a 2004 state audit. In comparison, the consumer price index for hospital services grew by less than 8% in approximately the same amount of time.
According to the Mercury News, the number of inmates treated at outside hospitals has increased because of a larger population of middle-aged inmates with "serious ailments" such as HIV and hepatitis C.
In addition, legislation strengthening prison sentencing has contributed to a larger number of inmates imprisoned for longer periods of time and has turned "some prison wings effectively into hospices for aged and sick inmates," the Mercury News reports.
Other factors include a nursing shortage at prison hospitals, a larger number of inmates with mental illness and the closing of many in-prison health care facilities.
Officials seeking ways to decrease costs have suggested increasing the number of secure in-prison hospital units, which require fewer officers to guard inmates.
Some experts also have suggested eliminating the overtime status of hospital guard detail.
Bruce Bikle, an assistant professor of criminal justice at California State University-Sacramento, said, "One way to avoid [paying prison guards] overtime is to post officers to hospital duty as a regular shift. The big deal is to plan for as much of the special needs as possible, thus eliminating most of the overtime for predictable things'' such as hospital visits.
In an effort to address the issue, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's (R) administration, in partnership with the University of California, is considering approaches employed by other states, including requiring only one guard to monitor hospitalized inmates, contracting with lower-cost private security guards to monitor minimum-security inmates and using telemedicine technology to treat inmates via televised images. The state does not currently track statistics on prisoners who have attempted to escape while undergoing medical treatment.
Corrections official John Dovey said, "Anytime we take inmates out of a secure perimeter, we're at our most vulnerable."
Corrections Department spokesperson George Kostyrko said, "The department has got an obligation for public safety. We're not going to put someone in a hospital setting without proper security."
Prison Law Office attorney Steve Fama said that while a heightened level of security in some instances is appropriate, "in others, you wonder what possible security threat there is. The person isn't physically capable of posing a security threat. He's not going to escape or hurt anybody."
Corey Weinstein, a founder of the prisoner-rights group California Prison Focus, said, "The idea of shackling desperately ill [inmates] is absurd and really obscene in terms of medical ethics" (Gladstone, San Jose Mercury News, 1/23).