Stockton Record
October 28, 2009

By Scott Smith
Record Staff Writer
October 28, 2009 12:00 AM
STOCKTON – J. Clark Kelso made his inaugural visit to Stockton on Tuesday as the prison health care receiver for what community leaders called a belated meeting on plans to build a medical center for state inmates southeast of the city.

Kelso and state prison officials promoted the California Heath Care Facility, Stockton, as a boon for the local economy, yet the assembled business, medical, education and political leaders used the meeting as an opportunity to unload their concerns on Kelso.

In turn, many of the 30-plus community representatives gathered inside the Stockton Greater Chamber of Commerce offices said that prison facility will hurt the local economy, drain medical workers from hospitals and promote the county’s prison “Gulag reputation.”

Once built, the Health Care Facility, Stockton, will be California’s 34th prison.

“I don’t think it’s quite right to say I see everything with rosy colors,” Kelso told the group. “There are pros and cons to any construction of this magnitude.”

A year ago, Kelso unveiled plans to build seven such sub-acute care medical centers throughout California for 10,000 inmates. He’s under the direction of a federal judge to bring inmate medical care up to constitutional levels.

Last week, he announced scaled-back plans to build only one medical center for 1,734 mentally and physically ill prisoners near Stockton. He expects to spend $1.1 billion to construct the new facility at the site of the former Karl Holton Youth Correctional Facility.

Kelso said one of his goals in Tuesday’s meeting was to start a dialogue with San Joaquin County leaders. His gesture received a cool response.

“That’s nice of you to say,” Stockton attorney Steven Herum told Kelso. “But I for one am very troubled that you don’t meet with us until you’ve already … given approval.”

Kelso responded, saying he was entangled with litigation and working with the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on the deal that is now focused on Stockton. He deliberately cut off dialogue with all of the prospective communities, he said.

“I’ve come under criticism for that,” Kelso said. “It’s not as though I treated any site any worse than any other.”

Herum said after the meeting that he welcomed Kelso’s visit but felt it lacked substance. By quietly approving the Stockton project on Oct. 12, Kelso started a 30-day clock for the chamber to file a lawsuit to stop him, Herum said.

“It forced the chamber’s hand,” he said, without saying if litigation is on the horizon. “He took away our flexibility and options to deal.”

Others at the meeting also addressed Kelso and prison representatives.

San Joaquin General Hospital already has trouble recruiting and maintaining trained staff, said Ken Cohen, the county’s Health Services director. The state will pay 20 percent to 30 percent more than the county hospital, he told Kelso.

Mike Locke, president and CEO of the San Joaquin Partnership, said the prison medical center is proposed for an area adjacent to a long-term, multimillion-dollar industrial center in the area of Highway 99 and Arch Road.

Locke’s job is to attract national and international firms to the area. Building California’s next prison there isn’t attractive to businesses, Locke said.

“You have to appreciate that concertina wire is not inviting (to) investors,” Locke said.

San Joaquin Delta College President Raúl Rodriguez said Kelso’s office opened a dialogue more than a year ago about ramping up an educational program for nurses. The conversation has since fallen silent, Rodriguez said.

Under current plans, the inmate medical center will be built and open in about two to three years. Rodriguez said he won’t be ready in that short time to start providing nurses to staff it.

“We told them what we would need,” Rodriguez said. “We’re open to the discussion, but we’ve heard nothing for a long, long time.”

Chamber CEO Douglass Wilhoit, who hosted the meeting, closed by inviting Kelso and state prison officials from Sacramento to keep the conversation alive. He said Stockton is only a phone call away and 48 miles south of the state capital.