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.

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I really wonder if those who term prison a ‘country club’ have any idea what they are talking about. As one who has worked many years behind the walls, I will tell you that state incarceration bears little resemblance to the life of ease and comfort some obviously imagine.

Prison is-as it should be- punishment for crime. But punishment alone is a shortsighed approach to a greater, long term, and prohibitively expensive problem-recidivism. We cannot afford to simply lock up convicted offenders.Costs associated with custody and care of individuals doing time have experienced exponential growth, due in large degree to a correctional system that has historically promoted a self servingly ignorant version of prison realities. That is, people without meaningful life options(i.e basic education/job skills)are prime candidates for a return to lock up status. Apart from the real human tragedies-of parentless kids, broken relationships, and economic loss to our communities- taxpayers are hit squarely in our own collective pocketbooks.

Teachers like Mr. Thomas are doing a difficult job, in circumstances made more difficult by those unwillingly or unable to see that sometimes the correct requires a little humanity and logic.

The fact that reading glasses are not readilly available for prison classroom use is a travesty!To task teachers with ‘rehabilitating’ inmates who cannot see the words on a printed page is to effectively handicap all concerned.

It should be noted that inmates themselves can purchase roughly those same $1 glasses for fifteen dollars through prison canteen.These purchases require no special permission, only money on account. Indigent students, who are trying to better themselves, can and do effect ‘services and trades’ for such needed items. On any given prison yard, large numbers of incarerated men (especially over the age of forty) posses non prescription lenses.

The failure to address such minor learning roadblocks as the need to maginify printing is indicative of a custodial mentaliy that handcuffs teachers just as effectively as it does inmates interested in changing their lives. It is a failure none of us can afford.

If incarceration costs are to be lessoned, such prison policies must be carefully and thoughtfully re-examined.

proofreading goofs in this one, too. One line should read:

Teachers like Mr. Thomas are doing a difficult job, in circumstances made even more difficult by those unwilling or unable to understand that sometimes correct action requires a little humanity and logic.

It should be added that addressing problems at the lowest levels helps contain costs. Prison medical receivership arose out of non’ response to inmate care issues. Proactive prison leadership can save millions in legal fees, and court directives.

Lets see, Good citizens who don’t break the law, work 40+ hours a week have no health care. Prisoners have health care, dental, vision and can earn a college degree……poor inmates, Wait let me stop to get some kleenex. The same system that let Tex Watson from the Manson family (the ones who stabbed Sharon Tate to death while she was 8 months pregnant) father several children who were then supported by welfare right here in San Luis Obispo. Ted Bundy, who murdered dozens of women, was also allowed to marry and conceive a baby girl while on death row. Wait need more kleenex for the plight of the poor conditions of the inmates. It seems every day I read about fund raisers for families of children suffering from cancer because they have no health insurance. Boo frickin hoo. Well, off to work I go now so I can pay taxes, buy gas from corporate pigs and continue supporting everyone else.

I hit submit before I got to edit/check. Obviously the boo hoo sarcasim was for the prisioners.

1. The teachers had no business taking a poll about the medical condition of inmates without authorization or medical training.

2. Of the 86 who “believed” they needed glasses, how many had requested an eye appointment? If they didn’t ask for an appointment, they/the teachers have no business complaining.

3. Poor eyesight should not be equated with a disability, especially if it can be corrected with a $1 pair of eyeglasses.

4. Inmates are adults who, if they have poor eyesight, should have already had glasses when they entered the facility.

5. All prison employees should know that giving anything to an inmate is wrong because of potential liability issues as well as the potential for inappropriate relationships and the appearance of favoritism, all which work against the best interests of staff and inmates.

The teacher took a simple issue and manufactured it into a dilemma by equating poor eyesight to a disability on par with blindness (American Disabilities Act! come on…). Talk about making a federal case out of something.

Actually teacher Thomas was attempting to address an issue, long before it could become a ‘federal case’An inability to see is indeed a handicapping condition(or if you prefer, disability)when the mission is academic education. I assume that this writer is (1)under forty years of age and (2)in no need of corrective lenses.

I, on the other hand, experience regular book print as a frustrating blur, sans specs!

Sour grapes because a teacher who should have known better failed to follow common sense rules which are a condition of his empolyment.Gifts and Gratuities is a phrase right out of the rule book he was well aware of or should have been.Absolving Inmate of responsibilities is another part of the problem-they are all interviewed by medical staff on arrivial and can request appointments then or at any other time.Why do people not get that being held unaccountable for things that we do on the streets is a big draw for these guys/gals, let them grow up!How many people get an automatic eye exam every year on the streets?Kelso isn’t going to let his cash cow die.This” teacher” should be counting his lucky stars he still has a job but then he apparently feels he is above rules.

OMG! This is a PRISON, not a day care facility or a COUNTRY CLUB….I have to wonder HOW much READING do these “inmates” actually do, or are they simply “looking at pictures” in a magazine??? Give me a break, we’re (taxpayers) already paying too much for these criminals, many of whom will never be re-habilitated…

Why would you go and put teacher in quotes? Are you trying to imply that because he gave his students glasses that he is not a teacher?

This “teacher” is my father. He has been a “teacher” for my entire life – 29 years. He has an outstanding success rate with the GED class at CMC. He is an excellent “teacher and is also a published author. He quite possibly is the only prison “teacher” in the country to write a book on education in the prisons, which he coauthored with another “teacher”, my grandfather, R. Murray Thomas (Ph.D., Stanford University) is an emeritus professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


La de da all that and still thought he was above the rules of his employer.What a good example to teach to people already incarerated.

I think the teacher is being treated unfairly and agree he should not be punished for his actions. Any good teacher spends a little bit of his own money to improve the conditions and learning in his classroom — but outside of that, we spend enough money on our inmates getting great care, when the rest of of us are paying exorbitant amounts of money towards our health insurance premium and deductible. Which they receive for free! Even if we have heatlh insurance, most of us don’t have ANY vision insurance. I say to cut back on their benefits and if you’re trying to prepare them for the real world — tax the heck out of them and give them not enough money to pay their bills. No more special treatement for inmates!!!

“Any good teacher spends a little bit of his own money to improve the conditions and learning in his classroom”

WELL SAID!! And I agree with your opinion that we pay too much money for inmates.

The system is severely flawed. Being punished for providing his students (inmates at CMC) with reading glasses so they can complete their school work? That’s ridiculous!

The education program at the prison is aimed at helping inmates earn a GED, so they have a better chance of being employable once they leave the prison system. It’s hard enough for someone to get a job with a criminal record. If these guys can’t even see their school work to be able to complete it, how are the supposed to get an education?

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I would much rather my tax money go to educating inmates so they can hopefully get jobs when overcrowding in the prisons pushes them out of incarceration, than have them released back into society with no hopes of a job. What are they going to do in that case? Go on welfare? Robb our houses? Neither of those options work for me.

Rob Thomas should not be punished for providing $1 reading glasses. He should be thanked!

I don’t think the problem is that this guy gave the glasses to the inmates but the fact he didn’t do it the proper way. Here’s something for thought. Let’s say Mr. Inmate gets these glasses from this state employed teacher. Then let’s say Mr. Inmate get into a argument with another inmate. Maybe hes disrespected or something. Then he decides to retaliate and brakes the side of the glasses off and files it into a weapon. He then uses this weapon to stab the other inmate. The attacked inmate then sues the state because had this state employee not given the glasses to the attacker he would never have used them as a weapon. He would win the lawsuit. Now the argument might be that if the inmate was going to attack with a weapon he would or could of used anything. Including state issued glasses. This is true but the state would not be found liable because anything else the inmate uses as a weapon was first a state product, accounted for, and not just given to him by an employee. If the inmate takes something that was originally state property then changed to an inmate manufactured weapon he will be charged with a crime.

If eyglasses being used as weapons is a concern, then why would any inmates be allowed to have glasses in the first place? I understand the argument, and understand the liability issue, but it just seems to be a weak argument when inmates are already allowed to have glasses. It’s not like the teacher is giving them knives and scissors.

That was just an example I thought of. I believe the real issue is accountability and control. The state needs to know what is going in a prison. An employee can’t just bring in something they feel an inmate needs. By doing that it opens up countless issues. Rules are set in place for reasons, this employee is paid to follow them. Employees at a prison can’t just pick and choose which rules they want to follow.

Many of us have “reading glasses” we would be happy to donate to the inmates. Any info on where we can take our reading glasses for donation to CMC?

Do a crime, get taken care of by our liberal state. With insurance, payments in the hundreds of dollars per month, my wife, children and i must make an appointment and wait for the next available slot. But should an inmate wait? No way!! Who would think of such things?

Travesty. 120 days for a look see? Should be a couple days.

Too bad! Once Medicare takes care of my eye glasses and if there is any money left give the money to the instructor and buy the $1 glasses. That is what I have to do under Medicare.

Thank you Obama.

That is what I have to do under Medicare.” what is that ?

Thank you Obama” huh ? ? ?