The brand-new Ronald Reagan Medical Center on the the UCLA campus provides 520 standard beds and 61 short-term hospitalization beds. It contains 1,050,000 square feet and encompasses four kinds of treatment facilities: the Mattel Children’s Hospital, the Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Institute, an emergency center treating all manner of traumas, and a general hospital handling everything from organ transplants to cancer treatment, infectious diseases, and general surgery.
It’s a 10-story complex designed to withstand an 8.0-level earthquake, with 26,000 tons of steel and 18,000 travertine marble panels on its outer walls.
Why are all these factoids relevant to anyone outside the publicity and development departments at UCLA, which raised almost half the building costs through private donations?
Here’s why: This spectacular addition to California’s publicly-owned medical establishment cost $1 billion.
That is one-eighth the amount now demanded for construction of medical facilities for California state prison inmates. The demand comes from a prison health czar appointed by a federal judge who properly ruled that health care for prison inmates is inadequate and has sometimes led to their premature deaths. In 2005, inmate deaths judged due to poor health care occurred about once a week.
The judge, former civil rights attorney Thelton Henderson of San Francisco, named Professor J. Clark Kelso of the University of Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law as health care receiver for the state prison system. Kelso then devised a plan to build seven inmate medical facilities around the state with a total of 10,000 beds – enough to house one of every 17 convicts in the prison system.
To accomplish this, Kelso contends, will take $8 billion over 25 years. He wants $250 million up front, right now, to get planning started – that’s one-fourth the total cost of the ultra-modern, high tech new UCLA hospital just for planning.
Kelso also wants $3.1 billion in his hands before next July 1 to begin construction. But he has yet to return phone calls asking how he arrived at these astronomical figures.
All at a time when the state budget will be at least $11 billion in deficit, unless lawmakers approve new taxes and make many cuts in services.
Here are a few questions that arise from all this: Why does the state prison system need 10,000 long-term hospital beds for a population of 170,000 inmates when the general law-abiding public does just fine with a far smaller ratio of hospital beds to prospective patients? Why does the state prison system need to be equipped with the most modern technology when prisoners can be taken to other hospitals if and when they need high-tech care? What state and local programs will have to be cut if Kelso and Henderson essentially confiscate $3 billion in state money before next summer? Will it be schools or parks or highways or sewers or Medi-Cal or children’s health care or police and fire protection? All these and more would be at risk instantly.
Because Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Controller John Chiang are properly resisting the huge money grab, it will eventually be up to appeals courts to decide whether the state builds the equivalent of eight ultra-modern new UCLA hospitals (damage from the 1994 Northridge Earthquake was the main reason for the UCLA project) for the exclusive use of convicted criminals.
In a way, this represents chickens coming home to roost. Back in the 1990s, when Californians eagerly passed three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws that dramatically increased prison population, then State Senator Tom Hayden, a Los Angeles Democrat, warned that mandatory life terms for even non-violent felons would force the state to create a massive geriatric care system.
He predicted California would eventually have to fund lifetime care for prisoners who usually represent little or no threat to anyone once they’re over 40. Almost all violent crime is perpetrated by persons in their teens, 20s, and 30s.
At the same time, the preponderance of prisoners needing medical care are those 40 and up.
There has been some recent movement in all this. Kelso now says he’s willing to “take that step back” and try to “reignite” a sense of cooperation with Schwarzenegger, Chiang and the Legislature. But as long as the price tag doesn’t come down dramatically, state officials should keep resisting these demands, going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
The bottom line: There is no doubt prison medical care needs to be improved. Kelso has already accomplished some of that by filling previously vacant nursing and physician positions at many prisons. But it simply makes no sense to mandate building the equivalent of eight new UCLA Medical Centers strictly for use by society’s most destructive elements.