Prison mental health spending questioned during state budget cuts


A new mental health wing is about to open its doors at the Vacaville state prison.

With a court order in hand, the state is quietly spending a lot of money on prison construction projects to improve the mental health care of inmates. But critics say this is no time to splurge.

The state of California is just weeks away from opening the first mental health facility for prisoners funded through a $7.5-billion bond approved by lawmakers in 2007.

The Vacaville site is being added to the existing prison hospital at 45,000 square feet, with 64 beds. Price tag: $33.6 million, or a half-million bucks per bed.

"We have a large wait list currently, and we're under a Coleman federal court order to relieve that wait list," said Stirling Price, Vacaville Psychiatric Program.

Along with Vacaville, about a dozen other facilities are being expanded, including the one in San Luis Obispo, costing $35.7 million, and in Chino, which will cost $33.7 million.

Stockton will get a brand new $900-million medical center.

At a time of deep budget cuts to education and social services for the poor, groups like Californians United for a Responsible Budget are questioning the use of taxpayer money in this building spree.

"We need the Legislature actually to step up and to halt all of the jail expansion projects," said Emily Harris, Californians United for Responsible Budget.

But lawyers for inmates have won battle after battle in courts to improve the conditions in prisons.

They're so overcrowded, healthcare declined below constitutional standards, and the U.S. Supreme Court had to step in.

Steve Fama sees the expansion as a victory.

"I don't think we should have a society in which a person who's seriously ill is allowed to live in pain because they have a mental health illness that's not treated," said Steve Fama, Prison Law Office.

Schools, though, have seen teacher layoffs, class size increases and electives cut in each of the last four budget cycles.

Prisons got a bump in spending.

"I understand the need for mental health and the expansion, but at the price of our education, it's a hard pill to swallow," said Diane Cox, a school superintendent from Hanford.

The state says while the upfront costs seem like a lot, it'll actually save taxpayers money in the long run by having these care facilities available on site.

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