California Men’s Colony accused of gross negligence
February 29, 2012
OPINION By ROBERT THOMAS
Recently, it has been suggested that administration of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) prisoner health care system by a federal oversight agency be ended and authority returned to CDCR. However, the current federal court-appointed receiver, Clark J. Kelso, who is in charge of overseeing the state prison medical system, has pointed out that CDCR has yet to meet the conditions set forth by federal judges in order to regain direct control of its medical system.
In its Saturday, January 28 issue, The Tribune printed an article concerning the possibility that an end of the federal oversight of the CDCR health care system might take place in the near future. The article was based upon an interview with Clark Kelso in which he pointed out that the state must still spend the $2 billion it has promised to provide in order to make improvements in the current state-prison medical facilities prior to meeting all qualifications required for reinstatement.
Another indication that Mr. Kelso’s concerns as to whether or not CDCR has fully complied with the federal mandates to fix its medical delivery system might have merit exists within our local state prison in San Luis Obispo, the California Men’s Colony (CMC).
For a number of years, the optometry care and treatment of inmates who reside at CMC has been extremely inadequate. This issue has recently become a point of contention between members of the prison’s education staff and the institution’s administrative and medical departments stemming from the difficulty prisoners who are enrolled in education classes have in acquiring optometry service and treatment.
Inmates who are housed at CMC do not routinely receive an eye exam once they arrive at the institution. Instead, the medical department requires that individual inmates make a formal written request to receive an appointment prior to being scheduled for one. After receiving a prisoner’s request, the medical department then notifies the inmate that he will be given an appointment in approximately 120 days.
At CMC’s West facility, one optometrist is available approximately two hours a day, twice per week, and he schedules appointments for an average of sixteen inmates per day, meaning that the doctor spends fewer than eight minutes examining each patient. To further exacerbate the situation, inmates routinely report that it can take as long as eight months after initially requesting treatment before they actually receive corrective eyewear.
Educators at CMC have tried for years to bring attention to the eyesight needs of their students. Prisoners who have eyesight impairments are often assigned to school prior to receiving an optometric exam and being furnished with the eye-glasses they need in order to function successfully in the classroom.
To help determine the true extent of the dilemma, instructors took a poll in the middle of August, 2011 of inmate-students who were attending both academic and vocational classes at CMC West to identify how many might need eye-care. Of the 273 inmates surveyed, 172 reported that they had not received an eye exam since being housed at the prison. Of those, 86 stated that they believed they had a visual impairment. Once the survey results were compiled, ten of the CMC West instructors petitioned the institution’s administrators and medical department to properly accommodate inmates with visual handicaps who were enrolled in the institution’s education programs. In response, the teachers were told to mind their own business, and their concerns were basically ignored.
The case of one academic instructor on the CMC West Education staff can be used to emphasize the mentality of the CMC administration regarding the issue. After years of frustration, the instructor began purchasing reading glasses for a dollar each at a local discount store and made them available to visually impaired students in his program in order that they could complete their academic assignments while awaiting a professional optometry exam and ensuing treatment.
When the prison authorities discovered what the teacher was doing, they sternly admonished him and as further punishment, garnished 5 percent of his wages, initially for a twelve month time period, but later reduced following formal litigation. The justification used for this action was the claim that the staff member was guilty of providing gifts and gratuities to inmates, which is strictly forbidden at the prison.
In response to his treatment by the local prison authorities, the teacher contacted the California Whistle Blower authority, and the California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) department, which is under the governance of the aforementioned Clark Kelso, and lodged a formal complaint against the CMC Medical and Institution Operation administrations with both agencies. Specifically, the instructor accused the administration of gross negligence by failing to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act and federal court orders to properly accommodate the needs of visually handicapped inmates housed at the institution, and particularly those assigned to education programs.
The response by the CCHCS was prompt, and a formal investigation into the teacher’s allegations is currently being conducted.
Most recently, the San Luis Obispo County Grand Jury was contacted concerning this issue, and they responded that they will investigate the matter.
Robert Thomas is a teacher at the California Men’s Colony.