Debra J. Saunders

Of course California's prison inmates are entitled to reasonable 21st-century health care. Unfortunately for taxpayers, Clark Kelso, the federal receiver in charge of California's prison health care has, as state Attorney General Jerry Brown noted at a news conference last week, a "gold-plated wish list" for California's prison health care system.

His Receivership wants to spend $8 billion to build seven new hospitals, each the size of 10 Wal-Marts, which would create "a holistic environment," with "music therapy, art therapy and other recreation therapy functions," a music room, stress-reduction room, game room and "therapy kitchen," with lots of natural light and high ceilings. A gymnasium would feature a "full-size high school playing court with basketball hoops and built-in edge seating up to four rows deep. Various floor striping allows for other games, such as volleyball, etc. Other sport activities include handball courts, exercise, and (a) workout room."

"The overarching value" of Plan Kelso is to create "a health care facility that cares for prisoners as patients and not a prison that cares for health care needs as inmates." No surprise: The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation estimates the annual cost of operating these facilities to be between $170,000 and $230,000 per inmate.

The amazing part: California politicians were going along with the plan until Wednesday, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brown filed a motion asking U.S. District Court Judge Thelton E. Henderson to replace Kelso with a special master.

Like hell, His Receivership's plans were paved with good intentions. When Henderson stepped in, he wrote in 2005, California's prison medical care system was so broken that "an inmate in one of California's prisons needlessly (died) every six to seven days." Henderson found that in some facilities, hygiene was optional and staffers were substandard. A San Quentin dentist wouldn't even wash his hands or change gloves between patients. I'm tough on crime, but that's criminal and unacceptable.

Henderson's remedies, however, have had their problems, as well. The first receiver, Robert Sillen, once threatened to "back up the Brinks truck" to the state's treasury to bankroll better inmate care -- and he clearly meant it. Sillen was paid $775,790 in the 15 months, ending in June 2007. An audit found no fraud, but it found that Sillen authorized $218,790 in overpayments to staff members for such benefits as health insurance and retirement that they already had received.

Debra J. Saunders

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