Stockton Record
October 23, 2009

By Michael Fitzgerald
Record columnist
October 23, 2009 12:00 AM
The federal receiver’s grossly unjust decision to dump a new prison hospital on Stockton is a classic example of treating the Valley as a second-class citizen.

San Joaquin County soon may be stuck with five prison facilities, if both the prison hospital and the re-entry facility proposed for the former women’s prison get built.

Only Kern County has more, six. Funny, both counties are in the Valley. The five counties that produce the most inmates are all in Southern California.

While San Joaquin’s prison infrastructure, however, made the site decision “easy,” the county does not need to be easy toward the facility’s huge impacts.

This is, after all, a 1.2 million-square-foot sub acute medical and mental health care facility. It will house 1,734 sick crooks. Including some from maximum security lockups, and mentally disordered sex offenders.

The wages paid at the facility, 20 percent to 40 percent higher than county wages, promise to suck the work force right out of area hospitals and the jail.

The facility will also burden local agencies such as the coroner, public administrator and police.

As it now stands, however, the receiver does not propose to mitigate many of the prison hospital’s impacts. He’s sticking it to Stockton and San Joaquin.

“The EIR is woefully inadequate, failing to address in a serious manner the legitimate environmental consequences of the project to our community,” said attorney Steve Herum, who represents the local Chamber.

Proper mitigation means the receiver commits the state (which ultimately will run the facility) to go beyond the usual fixes to roads and sewers and ease any special burdens.

That can be done, said San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore. Moore’s coroners will have to respond to deaths. The public administrator will have to settle estates. His deputies may even have to investigate inmate and inmate family cases.

“The easiest way to mitigate would be to work a deal saying we could calculate the number of cases we do, figure out what the cost is, and based on that, you say pay us X dollars at the beginning of the year to cover the cost, and at the end of the year adjust the cost up or down,” Moore said.

Instead, the receiver and the state chirp about the facility’s rosy economic benefits. I’m skeptical.

Yes, in principle, a county suffering 15 percent unemployment should welcome 3,000 jobs in construction, health care, corrections and other fields.

But, in practice, how many of the 15 percent now unemployed will get those jobs? Aren’t many unskilled?

I can see health care professionals from Modesto to Rio Vista commuting into this county, wearing out the roads, increasing traffic, dirtying the air – then taking their paychecks home.

Mayor Ann Johnston: “We went all the construction projects to have local hires, to use local businesses to provide the supplies. That money needs to be invested right here.”

Another tactic involves the prison hospital, which provides sub acute care, contracting San Joaquin General Hospital to provide acute care, an idea broached by former Sen. Mike Machado.

“Mitigation could include resources to construct a secure wing, also include an ongoing retainer for the services,” Machado wrote. “San Joaquin General as a teaching hospital is ideal for this and the community would benefit with much-needed financial support.”

The wisest ideas call for establishing or beefing up programs at local educational institutions such as Stockton Unified, Delta College and CSU Stanislaus to credential health care professionals.

Such programs could not only benefit the prison hospital, but the schools, and ease the regional shortage of health professionals. Could mitigation include support of these programs?

“That’s where we have to be smart about what we ask for and what we demand,” said State Sen. Lois Wolk. “And what we negotiate. I look forward to representing the county of San Joaquin on this issue. To make sure that we get as much as we possibly can.”

Unfortunately receiver J. Clark Kelso did not agree to meet with leading community groups such as the Chamber until after deciding to build the facility in Stockton.

“It suggests a meaningful lack of seriousness in dealing with our community’s legitimate problems,” Herum said.

It would be naïve to expect Kelso to put Stockton’s interests first. That’s our job. It’s a game of power politics, hard-nosed negotiations and, possibly, legal action.

Second class, remember, is a coach ridden by only those who settle for a poor ride.

“We need to draw a line in the sand,” said Mayor Johnston, “and say look, if there’s not cooperation and we don’t get what we want, we can go to court. We can fight it.”