California Men’s Colony accused of gross negligence

February 29, 2012

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.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Upon reviewing the responses to my editorial regarding the lack of optometric treatment provided to prisoners at the California Men’s Colony (CMC), I feel compelled to make a few comments and provide some facts. First of all, I admit that the way in which I chose to donate eyeglasses to the students I teach in my GED Test preparation program at CMC West was wrong. Even though my only reason for doing so was to enable my students to complete their academic work, I circumvented the appropriate procedures for donating materials to the institution and should have gone through the proper channels to do so. But, I have tried for years to bring attention to the needs of inmates with vision impairments who are assigned to education programs. The optometrist at CMC West, as was mentioned in the article, is only available four hours per week during which time he treats an average of 32 inmates for approximately 7.5 minutes each. As a result, inmates spend as many as nine months sitting in a classroom unable to do their schoolwork due to their inability to gain access to optometric services, a circumstance which would be considered intolerable by an average public citizen.

Secondly, if the concern is that the eyeglasses should be viewed as “weapon stock”, then the CMC administration is guilty of knowingly allowing eyeglasses to be sold through the inmate commissary for approximately twelve dollars a pair and to be distributed by the prison medical department. In fact, eyewear is not considered to be contraband inside the prison, nor have I ever heard of a pair of eyeglasses being used to manufacture a lethal weapon. But, even though corrective eyewear can be purchased by inmates, many have no financial support from friends and family members and have no means of earning money while in prison.

In addition, I fully understand the resentment felt by average public citizens who must pay for their own health care while inmates are provided medical services free of charge. Nonetheless, once a prisoner is incarcerated in one of California’s state prisons, he or she becomes a ward of the state and the state assumes a legal obligation to maintain the physical wellbeing of the inmate and provide health services when required. The failure of the California Department of Corrections in the past to provide adequate medical care for inmates has resulted in the expenditure of thousands of tax dollars for lawsuits brought by prison inmates against the state of California, which has resulted in federal court-ordered improvements in the medical treatment of prisoners and ultimately, the placement of the CDCR medical system under federal receivership. Two of the most notable examples are Coleman vs. Wilson (1992) and Armstrong vs. Davis (2001).

Members of the public may not realize that most convicts have not committed violent crimes that warrant long prison terms. To emphasize this point, of a total of 11,200,000 crimes that were prosecuted in the United States during 2008, approximately 87.5% were property crimes that did not involve acts of violence; whereas, 12. 5% were listed as aggravated assaults, robberies, forcible rapes, or murders (Federal Bureau of Investigations, September 2009). In addition, the U.S. Sentencing Commission surveyed 77,000 U.S. prisoners in 2008 and determined that their average period of incarceration was approximately 50 months (Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, 2008). Consequently, most prisoners return to the communities in which they were arrested after serving only a few years of incarceration, making the problem of how to prevent them from reoffending and returning to prison of paramount concern.

The current annual cost to house prisoners in a California state prison is more than $50,000 per inmate. Therefore, the most obvious direct benefit the tax-payer can receive by funding education programs is realized through the cost savings generated by the kinds of early release incentive laws that have been passed by the Indiana and California legislatures. The California prison system permits inmates to earn as much as six weeks off of their prison sentence per year by making gains in education . In terms of prisoner recidivism, a study conducted by the Indiana Department of Corrections determined that prisoners who completed education courses in the 2008-2009 school year reduced their sentences by a total of 1.3 million days, resulting in a savings of $68 million (Steurer, Linton, Nally, & Lockwood, 2010). The Three State Recidivism Study– carried out in the states of Maryland, Minnesota, and Ohio in 1997–revealed that every dollar spent on prison education programs resulted in a cost savings of two tax dollars (Steurer, Smith, & Tracy, 2001). Furthermore, the study tracked more than 3600 former prisoners for up to three years following their incarceration. Among the findings was that those who participated in an education program while in prison were up to 29% less likely to return to prison.

Research that was conducted in 1994 by the state of Texas penal system revealed the following concerning inmates who went to school while in prison: Those who graduated from a GED program or finished a vocational training program were 20% less likely to reoffend; only 13.7% of those who achieved an associates of arts degree returned to prison; just 5.6 % of prisoners who earned a baccalaureate were rearrested; as few as .1% of those who attained a master’s degree ended up back in jail (Epowiki, 2008).

There is no guarantee that any individual prisoner will automatically transform into a law-abiding citizen simply by becoming better educated academically or by learning a vocational trade. However, without the opportunity and means for change, no improvement can be expected of those who want to leave their criminal lifestyles behind and become constructive members of mainstream society, instead of outcasts who continually return to prison as a perpetual financial burden for law-abiding tax-payers. Otherwise, prisons represent nothing more than human warehouses that cost as much as $60 billion a year to operate in the United States and schools of crime in which those who are incarcerated for non-violent felonies become heavily influenced by hardened career criminals. To complicate the issue, 67% of prisoners are rearrested and 52% return to jail within three years after being paroled from a U.S. penal institution (Gibbons & Katzenbach, 2010). Hence, the purpose of correctional education is to provide learning experiences designed not only to address academic and vocational competency, but that also promote changes in mentality, leading to subsequent alterations in behavior. To this end, the prison classroom offers the best opportunity to achieve the overall goal. However, if they can’t read, prisoners are essentially prevented from learning, teachers can’t do the job they are hired to do, and tax payers are forced to bear a greater burden than necessary.

Well said! Keep up the good work!