Stockton Record
October 21, 2009

By Scott Smith
Record Staff Writer
October 21, 2009 12:00 AM
STOCKTON – Stockton will be home to a new prison hospital, California corrections officials announced Tuesday, highlighting the jobs it will bring to the economically challenged community.

Plans for the California Health Care Facility, Stockton, at the same time drew criticism from local business and political leaders who fear the project will drain doctors and nurses away from area hospitals that treat the public.

J. Clark Kelso, the Federal Receiver for California Prison Health Care Services, said he and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Matt Cate signed an agreement approving the Stockton site.

“This is a significant milestone,” Kelso said. He said he chose the location because it is near Stockton – an urban center – and the state already had property to be readily used.

Under the plans, the inmate health care facility will house 1,734 adult physically and mentally ill inmates. It will be built on the site of the Karl Holton Youth Correctional Drug and Alcohol Treatment Facility, which closed in 2003.

The former youth prison is outside the Stockton city limits east of the Highway 99 intersection with Arch Road.

The medical center will create 1,700 jobs at its peek of construction and directly employ up to 3,000 medical and correctional staffers in the long term, according to Kelso’s office.

The jobs will pay “above average” salaries, Kelso’s office said.

Work is expected to begin in 2010 and last two years. Construction will cost $1.1 billion and ongoing operation is expected to give the community a $297 million boost, Kelso’s office said.

San Joaquin County’s unemployment is at 15.7 percent, above the state and national average, Kelso’s office said, underscoring the benefit it will have to the local community.

Kelso last year announced plans to build seven such inmate medical facilities for 10,000 inmates throughout California. A federal judge put him in charge of bringing the state inmate health care up to constitutional levels.

Financial obstacles forced Kelso to limit his plans and focus his attention on the Stockton facility, he said.

“It was one of the areas that had the fewest (environmental) issues we needed to address,” Kelso said.

News the state selected Stockton for the facility wasn’t greeted warmly among local business leaders, who have opposed the plans since their inception.

“The community has been treated unfairly by Mr. Kelso,” said Douglass Wilhoit, CEO of the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce.

Wilhoit said Kelso has not maintained open communication with him and Stockton attorney Steven Herum, who represents the Chamber in its opposition to the new prison hospital.

Chief among his fears, Wilhoit said the increased inmate population will attract more families who need social services, especially those of inmates suffering long-term illness. Kelso said that studies have disproved the phenomenon.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has also been planning to convert the old Northern California Women’s Facility, just south of Stockton, into a re-entry facility, where inmates can get substance abuse counseling and job training and where many will reunite with their families in the last year of their sentences.

Putting the re-entry facility in the county was part of an agreement with the state to bring up to $100 million in funding for an enlarged jail, which constantly exceeds capacity.

San Joaquin County Supervisor Larry Ruhstaller said he expected Kelso’s announcement about the prison hospital. He also anticipates the already scarce nurses and doctors at the San Joaquin General Hospital will leave for higher salaries paid by the state.

That could exacerbate a shortage of trained medical staff in the San Joaquin Valley, which already has 31 percent fewer primary physicians and 51 percent fewer specialists than the rest of the state.

Hospitals in the surrounding area, including the Mother Lode, will also suffer, Ruhstaller said.

“We know how difficult it is to get specialty nurses,” he said. “It’s going to make it just that much more difficult.”

Ruhstaller said that since the inmate medical facility appears inevitable, county officials have started to look for benefits. He envisions signing a contract with Kelso to provide some acute medical care for inmates at the County Hospital.

That way, the ailing County Hospital can make money while saving the state, he said.

“What we need to do is try and make this not-great situation as good as we can,” Ruhstaller said. “I’m resigned to it. What else can we do?”