Wednesday, November 7, 2001
Baca, Board Clash Over Using Inmate Money for Inmate Medical Care
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
The county Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Lee Baca clashed yesterday in the latest in a series of debates over whether an inmate-funded account should be used to provide medical care to county inmates, a service that Baca claims is a county responsibility.
“The focus of responsibility to give medical service to inmates in county jail is a burden held by the county general fund, not the Inmate Welfare Fund,” Baca said at the board’s weekly meeting. “That’s the county’s responsibility.”
But supervisors disagreed, saying the Baca has discretion to decide whether the money in the inmate fund, which is generated by the inmates themselves, should be used for medical care. They said Baca should not be asking for additional money from the board if can fund it himself.
“He certainly has the authority to determine whether he wants to spend the money out of this fund or not,” Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.
In a Nov. 5 letter to county Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen, County Counsel Lloyd Pellman wrote that “while the County could not shift to the Inmate Welfare Fund its mandated obligation to provide funding for medical care for indigent inmates,” Baca can fund programs which benefit the inmates as he sees fit.
“The sheriff, in his sole discretion, can use it for any other purpose he deems necessary,” Yaroslavsky said, paraphrasing from the Pellman letter. “I don’t know what that means if it doesn’t mean discretion.”
Last month, the board suggested the inmate fund could be used to ease the burden on a county jail system struggling to provide medical care to its nearly 20,000 inmates.
In September, sheriff’s officials warned the board that the department is at risk of being cited by the federal government for civil rights violations unless it spends more money to improve its medical treatment for inmates. That same month Baca sent the board a letter demanding an additional $5.5 million more to pay for health care for county inmates.
The request came at a time when Baca is already $25 million over budget, an amount he is currently repaying to the county under a two-year plan.
Yaroslavsky argued that the medical problems must be resolved immediately or the county may be facing stiffer penalties.
“I think we’re cruising for a bruising if we don’t fix this,” Yaroslavsky said. “I don’t want a consent decree on our jails.”
The inmate fund, which county officials predict will total nearly $50 million dollars, comes from sales from vending machines and stores inside county jails, Deputy Darren Harris said.
The fund is then used to buy services and products which benefit the inmates themselves, like televisions, hygiene products, haircuts, and recreation items, Harris said.
Baca said he didn’t think it is wise to pay for medical staff with the fund since the money could dry up, leaving inmate services like jail and facility renovations, without a funing supply.
Baca suggested hiring a team of social workers who would work as intermediaries between the inmates and medical services.
“I just need to find a way to change the [jail] culture,” Baca said. “There has to be a systemic shift so inmates know we care about them.”
“I don’t think I can buy nurses, I don’t think I can buy doctors, but I think I can buy social workers,” he said.
But Pellman said his office hasn’t been saying no to paying for medical staff with the fund and that questions from the Sheriff’s Department have addressed only basic medical care and not specifics.
Baca also told the board that the expenditures made out of the fund by the department has eased the burden on the county’s general fund in the past, to the tune of $100 million.
He suggested that if the county isn’t going to pick up the tab to improve medical care in the jails that the county’s general fund and the inmate fund should contribute equally to meeting the medical needs of the county’s inmates, with $2.5 million coming from the inmate fund and the other $2.5 million coming from the county.
But Yaroslavsky disagreed, saying it isn’t a bargaining issue.
“We’re trying to help you solve a problem,” he said. “This isn’t a matching agency.”
Baca then cautioned that inmate advocates may resist spending money out of a fund that provides better housing facilities for inmates.
But supervisors said the advocates would support increased medical care for inmates.
“If the inmate advocates want to sue us, let them sue us,” Yaroslavsky said. “Let’s get it on.”
The board ordered Baca and Pellman to report back to the board on specific medical programs which could be funded by the inmate fund.
Supervisors also decided to let voters in Los Angeles County decide if the Sheriff’s Department should expand its command staff by approving a proposed county charter amendment on the March 5 ballot.
The amendment would allow Baca to hire another assistant sheriff and four division chiefs, with an estimated price tag of $530,000 for the five new positions. If approved, the assistant sheriff position and two of the four division chiefs could be selected from non-sworn personnel outside the department.
Baca said the command level of the department has not been increased in the last 30 years despite an increase in department employees and needs.
“We can’t use a 30-years-ago management philosophy for year 2001 problems,” Baca said.
Under the current charter, the department is allowed two assistant sheriffs and eight division chiefs.
“We continue to grow,” Baca said. “It doesn’t make sense any more to keep it that way.”
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company