Debra J. Saunders

A panel of three federal judges is holding a trial to determine whether to free 52,000 of California's 172,000 prison inmates to alleviate overcrowding. You might be asking yourself: Who elected these guys to run California?

One of the three judges, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, determined in 2005 that California's prison health care system is so bad that it's unconstitutional. He put the system in receivership and appointed law professor Clark Kelso to oversee prison health care.

Now Kelso is demanding $8 billion to renovate the system -- even though the state is spending about $14,000 on health care per inmate, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. (California's total health care spending was $169 billion in 2006, the California Medical Association's Ned Wigglesworth told me, which divided by 37 million comes to about $4,600 per head -- or a third of what is spent on the incarcerated.)

Here's the unfunny funny part: Criminal Justice Legal Foundation President Michael Rushford recently figured out that inmates live longer on the inside than on the outside, and they live longer on the inside than outsiders live. He found a study, "Release from Prison -- A High Risk of Death for Former Inmates," published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, which shows that the mortality rate for Washington state inmates spiked more than 1,200 percent in the first two weeks after their release, and averaged 386 percent higher than inmates in prison during the two years after release.

The study also found that Washington inmates have a lower mortality rate than the general population. In that Washington state inmates have a mortality rate very close to the California rate, Rushford figured that the judges should beware that by releasing 52,000 prisoners, more inmates will die. As the New England Journal study noted, "the risk of death was sharply higher after release than during incarceration." The leading cause of death for released inmates was drug overdose, followed by cardiovascular disease, homicide, suicide, cancer and motor vehicle accidents.

Apparently prison -- even prisons with shabby health facilities -- provides a healthier environment than what most criminals are used to. Behind bars, there are fewer ways to be self-destructive -- and there's health care.

Debra J. Saunders

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