In the nation’s largest prison system, nothing is cheap--and as felons by the thousands are sentenced under “three strikes,” the cost of operating this unwieldy system is certain to soar.
As it is, salaries are inflated to entice people to work in a bleak, isolated, often dangerous world. The annual state prison payroll exceeds $2 billion. Top pay for correctional officers equals that of the best-paid big city cops.
Food alone runs $2.45 a day per inmate, but the grocery bill for 130,000 of them will be $194 million this year. An unhealthy lot, they will rack up medical costs of $300 million, and doctors will do everything from delivering hundreds of babies to treating cancer.
A decade into history’s most expensive prison building boom, California will spend $3.1 billion this year to run its prisons. Around the turn of the century, the prison population and the cost of running prisons will double, if the “three strikes” law is enforced to the fullest, according to the Department of Corrections and the RAND Corp.
As voters mull the “three strikes” initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot, government experts say the state will be unable to pay for the incarceration of everyone sentenced to prison in years to come, unless sentencing laws are drastically overhauled.
To feed the voracious prison budget, the money will have to come from higher taxes or cuts in state support for other programs--chiefly the University of California and California State University systems, according to financial consultant William Pickens.
“Billions of dollars will have to go from other budgets just for ‘three strikes,’ ” said Pickens, a former vice president at Cal State Sacramento. “The numbers are quite clear, irrefutable.”
Craig Brown, undersecretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, said corrections spending can rise without tax increases. As the state emerges from the recession, more people will have jobs and pay taxes, providing more money for all state operations, he said.
“We’ll probably get more than our fair share,” Brown said. “We’ll get 20% of the growth. But we won’t get all the growth.”
Even without “three strikes,” records and interviews show, California’s prison system already is strained:
* Growing numbers of inmates arrive with communicable disease--nearly a fourth of them have the tuberculosis virus--adding millions in costs and raising fears that workers will contract disease.
* One in five inmates has mental problems or brain damage--and the Corrections Department has lost initial rounds of two class action lawsuits over care of mentally ill prisoners. The cost of complying with court orders could add tens of millions of dollars to the department’s annual budget.
* Staffing levels are among the lowest in the country, although the 23,000-member California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. plans to push for more staff to ensure officers’ safety during the expected influx of more unruly prisoners with longer sentences under “three strikes.”
* Although a third of its employees are women, the department has a history of sexual discrimination, receiving more complaints and paying out more in damages--$2.2 million--than any other state agency in the 1990s. In August, the department lost a $1.3-million sexual harassment judgment, but it is appealing. Corrections officials are trying to solve the problem by spending $1.6 million on training and investigations of sexual harassment claims.
* The department has trouble finding competent officers and professionals willing to work in desolate locales where most new prisons open. Some prisons have scores of vacancies, and wardens have been dismissed at three new prisons over management problems. Chuckwalla Valley prison at Blythe has had four wardens since it opened in 1988.
“The biggest challenge corrections faces is coming up with adequate experienced, well-trained supervisory and middle-level management staff, because we’ve grown so rapidly,” Brown said.
Corrections administrators try to limit costs by centralizing policies and purchasing among 28 prisons, and reducing inmate programs. But the driving cost remains inmates--and that number rises almost daily.
“If the Legislature takes 20,000 inmates, they can have $100 million (back) and I won’t say a word,” said Corrections Department director James Gomez.
Next year, the nation’s prison population will reach 1 million, and state and federal governments will spend $21 billion to operate their prisons. California’s share, $3.1 billion, will be $1.6 billion more than Texas and $1.7 billion more than New York, according to a national study. Although California has the largest inmate population, its cost per prisoner, about $24,000 annually, also is higher than in those states.
What follows is a look at some reasons why California’s prisons cost so much:
Political leaders, taking a tough-on-crime stance, are unwilling to shorten or eliminate prison terms for even nonviolent crimes.
The state could save $157 million next year by eliminating prison terms for people convicted of petty theft, drunken driving, drug possession, marijuana offenses, forgery and fraud, according to a Corrections Department analysis. The state could save $94 million more by eliminating prison for people convicted of drug possession for sale.
The guards union told a legislative committee that it would support “phasing out” prison terms for people found guilty of petty theft. Enough inmates are doing time for petty theft to fill an entire prison.
But none of those suggestions surfaced in public debate. The guards union put its efforts into winning passage of “three strikes” and other anti-crime bills. The Legislature obliged, passing 104 bills lengthening sentences.
“An election year is not the most opportune time for criminal justice reform,” said Geoff Long, consultant for the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.
Unwilling to cut incarceration costs by overhauling sentencing, lawmakers take slaps at the prison budget.
A favored target is conjugal visits. California is one of seven states that allow inmates with good discipline records to have private overnight visits with spouses.
As the Legislature approved the prison budget this summer, Assemblyman Dean Andal (R-Stockton), running for a seat on the State Board of Equalization, won passage of a measure to ban such visits for child molesters.
Savings will be negligible because the entire conjugal visiting program costs $3.7 million a year. The most likely outcome will be that other inmates will take the place of convicted molesters who are denied conjugal privileges. Meanwhile, at least five inmates serving time for crimes against children have sued over the issue.
The biggest cost in prisons is salaries--66.5% of the budget. The payroll goes up one position each time six felons arrive. To fill a single position, the department must hire as many as five employees to cover all shifts.
California’s staff-to-inmate ratio is third lowest in the nation, the Criminal Justice Institute reports. But California also pays its prison employees more than virtually every other state.
Chief physicians at a prison are paid as much as $103,212 a year. Chief psychiatrists earn up to $101,832. Wardens make $83,748, 20% above the national average maximum pay, the institute says.
The department spent $146.6 million on overtime last year, $52 million more than had been budgeted.
It also pays $2,400 bonuses to entice employees to remain for a full year at less desirable posts--such as two prisons in Blythe. Employees who remain a year at San Quentin and Soledad prisons are paid $2,100 housing allowances.
Still, at remote prisons, finding professionals is difficult. Pelican Bay State Prison in far Northern California was open more than two years before it had a full-time psychiatrist--prompting allegations of inadequate mental health care in a major suit over conditions there.
“Ideally,” said Pelican Bay Warden Charles Marshall, “you don’t send any inmates in until everything is in place. That wasn’t reality. The reality was they were coming in at 300-plus a week.”
California’s force of 15,798 correctional officers, or guards, will be paid more than $720 million this year, including overtime. The state pays veteran officers more than any other state except Alaska, New Jersey and New Mexico. Officers at the top pay step--and more than half make top pay--get $10,000 a year more than those in the federal Bureau of Prisons, and 47% above the national average.
After seven years on the job, an officer makes $44,676 a year, plus an annual uniform allowance of $530. That rivals the top pay for a Los Angeles patrol officer--$47,940, attained after 10 years.
With bonuses and overtime, a seven-year officer at Blythe could bring in an extra $16,000, boosting his or her pay to $60,000, officials say.
Novey of the guards union says, “This profession has been in existence for 135 years and it got the raw deal for 130 of them. They’re just catching up. . . . They just want their just wages for a tough job.”
California spends more on prisoners’ health and mental health care--$372 million--than 36 states spend on their entire prison budgets. The cost will mount fast as more prisoners serve longer sentences and some prisons become “essentially retirement communities,” said Norman Carlson, former head of the federal Bureau of Prisons and a professor at the University of Minnesota.
“Prisoners by their very nature are in very poor health. Their medical costs far exceed the cost of incarceration,” Carlson said.
The medical system includes a new 75-bed, $17-million hospital at Corcoran State Prison, hospitals at three older prisons, and contracts with community hospitals close to each of the prisons. To control costs, improve care and limit the spread of disease, Gomez created a health services unit.
Officials say 1,153 inmates are known to carry the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. But a random study by the state Department of Health Services in 1988 found that 2.5% of the men and 3.1% of the women entering prison have the virus. If that number is accurate, the prison system would have more than 3,100 inmates with the virus.
A fourth of the inmates--33,084--carry the TB virus, and roughly 100 inmates a year come down with TB. Still, treatment costs exceed $1 million a year.
Some money--no one in corrections knows how much--is spent on inmates such as Raymond Jackson. Jackson, in prison for kidnaping, is one of many inmates who arrive as drug abusers in ill health.
Jackson was placed on kidney dialysis in 1981 at the California Medical Facility, Vacaville. Acting as his own lawyer, he also sued to force the department into giving him a kidney transplant. Doctors balked, saying he was an uncooperative patient who hoarded his painkillers. But in 1987, after a state appellate court ruled in his favor, he got the transplant.
At least seven other prisoners received kidney transplants at state expense--about $50,000 each--while Jackson waited five years for his, according to his lawsuit.
Jackson’s case did not end with the operation. He refiled it, claiming that the delay amounted to deliberate indifference to his suffering, and has lawyers representing him.
“Once the state takes custody of somebody,” said Antonio Ponvert III, one of the lawyers representing Jackson, “that person is precluded from seeking help elsewhere. . . . As a parent does for a child, you have an obligation to care for that person.”
In 1993, before “three strikes” was part of the criminal justice lexicon, a study done for the Corrections Department found that 11% of the men and 15% of the women in prison had serious mental disorders.
The study recommended construction of new wards and renovation of old cellblocks for an estimated 18,000 mentally ill inmates, as well as the hiring of 520 medical and mental health staff. The total added cost was $122 million--plus $68 million already being spent on mentally ill inmates. The department began funding the improvements last year.
“We are aggressively dealing with it,” said the correctional agency’s Brown. “We’re required to provide enough mental health care to avoid cruel and unusual punishment. We’re not required to provide Mayo Clinic-level care.”
Meanwhile, two prisoners rights lawsuits have alleged that 28,000 inmates throughout the prison system are being deprived of adequate mental health care. If the Corrections Department loses and federal courts seize control of mental health care in prisons, costs could skyrocket to $300 million a year, said Kyle McKinsey, head of the department’s health care unit.
“They’re under a constitutional obligation to provide mental health care,” said Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office, which is pressing both suits. “However ironic it may seem, state government isn’t similarly required to provide mental health care to you and me.”
California inmates file about 1,000 lawsuits a year. Many are bizarre and frivolous. But some are serious, like one brought by the family of Tyler Henderson. Sent to prison at 19 on a second-degree murder conviction, Henderson, an epileptic, arrived at Pelican Bay in 1990.
Once there, he and his family repeatedly told the prison that he needed a particular drug to control his seizures, but he did not get the medication and suffered more than 100 seizures during the next 20 months.
Henderson died March 15, 1992. The Del Norte County coroner determined the reason to be a grand mal seizure--a highly unusual cause of death in a day when epilepsy can be controlled with medication.
The department settled the case in 1993 for $175,000. Citing inexperienced staff at the new prison as a reason for Henderson’s death, Jerry Prod, chief lawyer for the department, said: “We didn’t watch him close enough.”
The department settled another death case at the new women’s prison at Chowchilla for $360,000 last year. The case involved Diana Reyes, 42, convicted of assault and drug possession. When medical staff found her four hours before she died in June, 1991, she was on a mattress on the floor of her cell, caked with dried feces.
The circumstances of her death angered some prison staff. Medical technical assistant Robbie Jean Waters testified in a deposition: “Why was she on the floor, and why was she like this, and why hadn’t she been seen?”
Prod said the department settled the case because “we thought we had a chance of being held liable” in a trial. In all, the department settled nine medical malpractice cases last year for $1.8 million.
The state attorney general’s office assigns 80 lawyers and paralegals to defend the department against prisoners’ lawsuits. The Corrections Department also hires outside attorneys, spending $17 million since 1990 on private lawyers to defend it against inmate and employee suits.
The law firms include several that are politically connected in Sacramento. One is Nielsen, Merksamer of Mill Valley, which has a contract worth $480,000. Vigo (Chip) Nielsen is Gov. Wilson’s longtime campaign lawyer. Steve Merksamer was former Gov. George Deukmejian’s chief of staff.
“They want to win, so they look for the most qualified law firms they can find,” Merksamer said. “We didn’t solicit this business.”
Prod said he was unaware that Nielsen is active in Wilson’s political operation. He said he selected the firm because its partners include former deputy attorneys general who specialize in civil rights law.
The department paid $2.8 million last year to outside firms to handle employee lawsuits, many of which involve sexual discrimination. While Gomez has tried to crack down on sexual misconduct, his agency continues to lose cases in court.
In August, a Marin County judge ordered the state to pay $1.3 million to Lisa Pulido, who quit her job as a correctional officer at San Quentin after years of harassment. Co-workers and superiors propositioned her, followed her home, even assaulted her, said her lawyer, Pamela Y. Price of Oakland.
Pulido’s judgment was the largest sexual harassment ruling against the department--but not the only one. In the early 1990s, the department paid $1.4 million in sexual harassment claims, more than twice the sum paid by any other state agency.
Unlike some states, including Texas, California has avoided court orders that essentially seize control of major parts of the management of the state prison system. But California has been the target of class action suits brought on behalf of hundreds or thousands of inmates. When the department loses, the court orders define much of how it operates.
In the 1970s, high-security prisoners mounted a successful suit charging that conditions at San Quentin, then California’s highest-security prison, violated constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.
Partly as a result of its loss in that suit, the Corrections Department built the $240-million Pelican Bay prison, which has an operating budget of $83.2 million this year. Pelican Bay also has come into the sights of prisoners rights attorneys, who have alleged that conditions in its security housing unit, open less than five years and reserved for gang leaders and especially violent inmates, amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, California prisons were renowned for educational and vocational programs. In 1967, the state became the only one to pass an inmates bill of rights, guaranteeing prisoners most rights enjoyed by free people, including the right to marry, correspond confidentially with lawyers, and read virtually any book or magazine.
A decade ago, 6,500 inmates were enrolled in college courses. But with strained state finances, the Corrections Department abolished college courses for prisoners, and last month, Wilson signed legislation curtailing the inmates bill of rights.
It all reflects a basic change in attitudes about the purpose of California prisons. Punishment, not rehabilitation, is the primary goal.
As more inmates arrive with “three strikes” sentences, the department will be forced to cut deeper into educational programs, predicted one prison official involved in educating inmates.
The state spends 3% of its prison budget on education. But more than half the inmates have less than ninth-grade literacy, and an estimated 17,000 inmates are on waiting lists for prison jobs or education.
“While other correctional operations, such as prison construction and hiring of correctional officers, have been shielded from deep budget cuts, education has taken a severe blow,” the state-funded Little Hoover Commission reported this year.
Said Brown: “We could put everybody in programs, but it would cost another $100-$150 million. The people who complain we don’t put enough people in treatment often are the same people who complain that we take too big a share of the budget.”
Henry Sianez, 51, is serving a murder sentence of life without parole at the new prison at Folsom. Incarcerated since 1978, Sianez took college courses until that program was cut. He used to earn enough from leather work that he sent some money to his wife, whom he met and married while at Folsom. Now, he said, his art supplies amount to paper and pen.
“There is no program,” Sianez said. “You have a yard, and that’s about it. There’s even a bill to do away with weights. A lot of these guys, that’s all they do. . . . It’s going to get tougher, just like on the streets.”
Times librarian Mary Edwards contributed to this article.
About This Series
Prison building already has become a multibillion-dollar industry in California, and with the “three strikes” law, an even bigger boom is forecast for the coming decades. The Times visited prisons, from the Imperial Valley to the North Coast, and reviewed thousands of pages of public records to examine the state’s prison construction program, life inside the penitentiaries and issues that already are severely straining the penal system.
* Sunday: How tough-on-crime legislation has created a Pentagon-like bureaucracy and generated unprecedented prison construction that has touched all corners of the state.
* Monday: A journey through the California prisons system, where the flow of inmates has far outstripped construction of 16 new facilities since 1984.
* Tuesday: With the state planning up to 25 more prisons by the turn of the century, many communities weigh the potential impact on jobs, housing, public services and property values.
* Today: The cost of keeping the ever-expanding prison system running is being driven higher by the influx of inmates, inflated salaries and health care costs.
To become a correctional officer, a person must be 21, have a high school diploma or equivalency and a record of no felony convictions, no marijuana use for one year and no hard drug use for 10 years. Recruits must complete a physical fitness test, a background check, a six-week training course and nine months of probationary duty.
Here are some statistics: Starting pay: $23,316 a year Top pay: $44,676 a year Number of officers: 15,798 (includes part-time) Breakdown: 81% men, 55% white, 45% minority Officers at top of pay scale:* 8,948 Uniform allowance: $530 annually per officer POSSIBLE BONUSES: Physical fitness pay: $65 a month Bilingual bonus: $60 a month Enticement for staying full 12 months at Ironwood, Chuckwalla or Avenal**: $2,400 a year Housing allowance for staying full 12 months at San Quentin or Soledad**: $2,100 a year * Attained in their seventh year on the job
** Bonus pay for less desirable posts or areas with high housing costs
Sources: Department of Corrections and Criminal Justice Institute
Crime’s High Price
Here is a look at the costs of running one prison in California, and how the state compares in some financial statistics:
ONE PRISON: Corcoran State Prison is a high-security facility with a 75-bed hospital. Its 1994-95 budget of $102.8 million is higher than the state average of $73 million. Salaries: $61 million Benefits: $18.2 million Feeding: $4.5 million Clothing, personal care: $4.1 million Utilities: $3.4 million Overtime/holiday pay: $3.56 million Medical: $3.3 million Miscellaneous: $2 million General expenses: $829,000 Medical supplies: $601,000 Communications: $339,000 Travel: $274,000 Equipment: $222,000 Printing: $194,000 Temporary help: $170,000 Postage: $110,000 ***
COMPARING STATES: Here is a look at how much it costs to build prisons per bed at different security levels in fiscal year 1994.
BEDS MAXIMUM MEDIUM MINIMUM STATE PLANNED SECURITY SECURITY SECURITY Texas 36,119 $32,000 $24,000 $20,000 Florida 26,699 $23,445 $19,865 $9,542 California 13,248* $113,187 $91,247 $59,186 Federal 12,000 $85,000 $56,000 $18,000 Arkansas 4,463 $52,000 $27,000 $27,000 Hawaii 3,024 $155,000 $220,000 $70,000 Massachusetts 2,600 $100,000 $80,000 $75,000 Washington 2,241 $110,000 $94,130 $36,088 Arizona 2,218 $41,000 $35,311 $30,000 Ohio 2,010 - $24,093 $27,124
* Beds under construction or funded
Sources: 1994-95 California Budget, Department of Corrections, Criminal Justice Institute, legislative analyst and Federal Bureau of Prisons