Price of prison

There’s a price to pay for everything, and sooner or later the bill comes due. Californians wanted stiff mandatory-sentencing laws, and they got them, then spent years postponing payment of costs related to the rapidly growing prison population. Now, an $8 billion bill for inmate health care has come due, and there’s nothing the state can do but begin payment.

With state budget negotiations already deadlocked over how to resolve a $15 billion-plus deficit and cuts looming for so many state programs, it may seem an inopportune time for Californians to have to shell out additional billions for improved prison health care. But the fact is that the prison medical system was ignored in good budget times and bad, and we’ve put off payment for as long as the law would allow—and then some.

We didn’t pay in 2001, after a federal court ruled that the care offered to inmates was so poor it violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. We didn’t pay in 2006, after California’s failure to improve the system forced the court to seize control of it—the largest federal takeover of a state agency ever. We didn’t pay earlier this year, when efforts to authorize a bond died in the Legislature. And as of this writing, we haven’t paid even in the face of promises from the court receiver that he will ask a judge in September to seize all $8 billion from the state treasury and hold the governor and other top officials in contempt of court.

Meanwhile, people keep dying. Of the 552 inmate deaths in the system since 2006, 161 are under investigation with regard to poor medical practices, and there are plenty of horror stories: a paraplegic who died in 109-degree heat while shackled in the back of a transport van with no air conditioning, doctors who don’t have so much as a sink to wash up in as they treat some 300 prisoners per day and more.

We won’t be surprised if some readers have no sympathy for convicted criminals who suffer under such conditions. The fact that most Californians are fed up with crime is more than evident in the spate of tough mandatory-sentencing laws passed over the course of the past decade that have helped swell the state’s prison population to 172,000, the nation’s largest. But California, which built 19 prisons before the passage of the epochal three-strikes law in 1994, has built only two since, and the prison medical system has become a nightmare.

Now, the bill for this neglect is due. It’s a shame the state did not act to fund the necessary improvements earlier in this decade when California was running a budget surplus. But we didn’t. Now, there is nothing left to do but authorize a bond to begin payment, adding $3.1 billion to state deficit, or risk waiting for a September court action that could seize the entire $8 billion. Authorizing the bond is the only humane and responsible course of action, and the governor and state lawmakers should work to make that happen.