Hey, Gov. Schwarzenegger, you say you want to root out big-time government waste to solve budget problems? Well, listen up. You’ll be amazed at how much regular folks know about this and how they’ll expose it with only the slightest encouragement.
Here’s what happened when this column revealed a single type of wasteful government negligence: Dozens of readers responded with examples big-time squandered tax dollars.
J. Clark Kelso, the court-appointed chief of medical care in California prisons, estimated here last month that the prison system throws away at least $100 million a year because officials refused for decades to negotiate low rates with hospitals, as every insurance company does.
Readers followed with scores of tales of related waste, many of them accurate. This suggests legislators and the governor might get results if they’d only consult rank-and-file citizens in their alleged search for waste.
“I have nursed countless inmates and observed millions of dollars in excessive expenses,” emailed an intensive care nurse at a non-prison hospital in Vacaville. “Of course, the physicians order every test in the book for the inmates…”
“In many cases, the inmate is either temporarily or permanently incapacitated. I have seen brain dead inmates with two officers watching them around the clock; often on overtime…”
Dr. Terry Hill, chief medical officer for California Prison Health Care, confirmed the nurse’s observations. “The rules of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation require that where a prisoner is considered a risk to public safety (because of his crime), there be two guards at all times when the inmate is not in a prison facility,” he said. “The rules are inflexible. I would confirm the nurse’s statement.”
When it comes to excessive blood tests and diagnostic scans, Hill also confirms waste. In this case, it’s because convicts often sue doctors. “We have some physicians who have been sued by inmates 100 times or more,” he reported. “Some of those complaints are valid; very many are very frivolous. One doctor got sued because he didn’t give an inmate long underwear. So the doctors are very defensive.”
A solid set of rules from the prison system could solve this problem by spelling out just what tests should be used in various circumstances. Do this, and prisoners would have to sue the state, leaving doctors to do their jobs less defensively and saving big bucks on tests.
Total cost of these forms of waste? There are no firm figures, but Hill estimates it’s at least in the millions of dollars, perhaps tens of millions.
From Pam Hurt, head of Robinson Textiles, a Gardena-based firm that is America’s second-largest provider of jail and prison uniforms and bedding, came this:
“The last time I checked the prices of the California Prison Industries Authority, it was charging $17.95 for one neon-green inmate coverall,” she said. “I sell them for $12.90. With 170,000 inmates getting an average of two new coveralls a year, you do the math on the waste.”
She’s got the price comparison right. Robinson sells coveralls to many California county jails and to state prisons around the nation for far less than this state’s prisons pay the state-run PIA, which gives inmate workers about $1 per day. State law makes prisons buy whatever they can use that’s made by the PIA. But the code section says nothing about pricing.
“The point of our programs is training, not profit,” says PIA spokesman Tom Collins. “We get inmates to interact in a professional manner with each other, their guards and their instructors. We provide training in skills they can use on the outside, things like underwater welding, carpentry and metal fabricating. We see about 25 percent less recidivism (repeat crime) from inmates who have worked in our industries than other inmates.”
But Hurt says sewing uniforms and blue jeans is not a skill prisoners can use on the outside anymore. “All our sewing is done overseas and that’s true of our leading competitors, too,” she said.
Then there’s the waste created by the sheer number of prisoners. “We don’t need all these punitive laws like three strikes and you’re out,” said reader Ray Procunier, California director of corrections under Gov. Ronald Reagan. Procunier is now retired and living in Grass Valley. “When Reagan was governor, we cut the prison population by one-third and there was no increase in crime, not even a blip. I guarantee I could bring down today’s prison population from 170,000 to 75,000 and not hurt a soul in the process.”
If he’s right, the state could save more than $4 billion in prison costs, at the current annual average cost of $47,000 per prisoner.
The common thread among reader comments was that even in a day of budget crisis, politicians don’t ask constituents how the state could save money and avoid tax increases that no one really wants to pay. It turns out some of those people know more than any politico.