SAN QUENTIN (CBS 5) — One out of every four Californians has no medical insurance. But $2 billion in taxpayer money is being spent each year to provide medical care to California’s prisoners.

Take the case of San Quentin prison. The state built a brand new $136 million hospital at the prison for some of the state’s worst offenders. But why were some inmates, including those on death row, being sent to outside hospitals for sleep studies?

Prison healthcare CEO Jackie Clark recently took CBS 5 on a tour of the state of the art facility.

“We have exam rooms, we have our primary care clinics, we also have lab service, physical therapy service,” Clark said.

None of this came easy. Health care at San Quentin used to be so bad that inmates filed a class-action lawsuit. In 2005, a three judge panel found the entire California prison healthcare system “broken beyond repair” and ordered a federal receiver to take over and fix it.

Sam Johnson is serving life for first degree murder. He told CBS 5 things are much better now.

“Before we used to dread going to medical, but now when we come in they make us feel like humans,” he said.

He’s recovering from a weekend warrior injury to his knee. “I had arthroscopic surgery on it three weeks ago,” he said.

So did inmate Isaiah Thompson. “I tore it up playing football,” he admitted, grinning sheepishly.

Both prisoners were injured in the prison yard. But even though there’s a surgeon on staff, their surgeries were done at outside hospitals.

“This is not an acute care facility. We do what we can here and what we can’t, we refer out,” said Clark.

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They’re referring out a lot. “I actually went to Kentfield last week in Marin, it’s like a little outpatient clinic,” said David Cole. His medical emergency: A blister on his toe. As a diabetic, he could easily be treated inside.

So why does he go out for a blister? “They do have a podiatrist here. I don’t know, I can’t tell you,” he said.

In fact there are 14 doctors and 100 nurses working at San Quentin, many earning six-figure salaries, for inmate treatment much of which is being done elsewhere.

It’s something that bothers Chuck Alexander, vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

“Why can’t we have one of these medical personnel that we have hired for $2 billion, make a legitimate assessment right there in the prison, so we are not taking this guy out on his weekly joy ride,” he said.

Alexander hears stories like this from the guards every day. “Routinely we get complaints about people being taken out for lancing of a boil, a couple of stitches for a cut,” he said. “I recently heard of an inmate on death row that was taken out to participate in sleep apnea treatment.”

A CBS 5 crew witnessed inmates from San Quentin Prison at Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo for a sleep study. (CBS)

CBS 5 followed an unmarked corrections car from the prison, with a van of inmates in tow, across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Half an hour later, the caravan was in the parking lot of Doctor’s Medical Center in San Pablo.

Three shackled prisoners lumbered out of the van into the darkness, followed by six guards, all headed into the sleep clinic. The next morning, before daybreak CBS 5 was there as they filed back into the van to head back to their cells.

CBS 5 has learned that last year alone, San Quentin sent 17 prisoners, including death row inmates, to sleep clinics.

“If that’s happening, it shouldn’t be,” said Clark Kelso. He is the federal receiver hired to fix the prison healthcare system. “We still have work to do there, to tie down excessive referrals,” he said.

But Kelso defends the $136 million new hospital. “I think it was a necessary use of taxpayer dollars,” he said.

Kelso said spending has been curbed, by setting up an HMO-like network for providers. “We were paying about twice as much in many cases to send somebody out. So we are doing much better,” he said.

The private insurer Health Net runs the program. But when CBS 5 asked for a breakdown of claims he said, “There’s a state statute that prohibits me from disclosing confidential trade secrets.”

That’s not sitting well with at least one lawmaker: “To leave this area untouched and unknown I think has to raise concerns for all of us,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento).

Dickinson was behind a bill that would have forced Health Net to reveal its billings. It never passed. “The argument made by the health insurance companies is that it would be a competitive disadvantage,” he said.

CBS 5 asked Kelso: What answer do you give to those millions who don’t have healthcare, but are paying taxes, and their taxes are going to these confined, sometimes condemned inmates?

He responded, “We are providing care that is medically necessary. If you’re going to incarcerate this number of prisoners you have to be willing to pay for what you have to do to incarcerate, and providing healthcare is one of those things.”

Chuck Alexander disagrees. “I think that people at home hearing a report like this should be concerned about how that $2 billion a year is being utilized.”

After CBS 5 exposed inmates and their regular visits to the sleep clinic, the federal receiver sent an email that said things have changed. Starting next week, sleep studies will be conducted inside San Quentin’s new hospital.

Meanwhile these expenditures aren’t the end of it. An $800 million hospital is already under construction in Stockton, for long-term care and mental health prisoners. Also because of the federal lawsuit, another $2 billion has been set aside to medically upgrade other prisons. But a fight is on: the state wants the receiver out. The receiver wants to finish the job.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

Comments (52)
  1. Frustrated RN says:

    Being an RN in the prison system, i must agree that most of the tax dollars are COMPLETELY WASTED. , Prisoners have much better healthcare than I do. We are mandated to meet with a prisoner and do triage within 24 hours- even if that prisoner puts in a sick call slip daily. and has no health issues, maybe they just want to leave their cell for a bit.
    They refuse treatment (this is their right), wait until they get very sick and then demand treatment (this is also their right). Often times they are so ill by then we must send them out to higher levels of care. This is where the costs really add up- paying several guards overtime, a driver, the hospital fees. It’s at least ten grand each time we send someone out. We don’t want to do this but the prisoners are doing everything they can to build a lawsuit and we are constantly playing a game.
    On my very first day a guard came to me and said, “just know, the inmates have nothing better to do all day than think up ways to get over on us”. Couple that with a litigious society and prisoner advocates, this is the result.

    1. norbit says:

      It’s good to hear the story from your side. For me, I’m frustrated because the general public can’t afford some of the procedures that they get via taxpayers. It’s ridiculous. Inmates filing a class-action lawsuit? HA..what a joke…this whole system is a joke.

      1. Ryan says:

        How far can this system really go before it collapses? I mean honestly these stories keep getting dumber and dumber. I am just waiting for the whole damn system to collapse, it is too expensive and decisions like this are made with our hard earned money.

        I will be ready for the apocalypse, will you?

      2. Nasty_SF says:

        California is no longer the Golden State. There was a time when Cali was the Envy of this country. Now it’s a joke.

        The only people that live the good life in CA are illegals, deviants, pervs, criminals, and welfare lifers.

        Good Luck, Mexifornia

      3. Shawn Mathews says:

        Actually the biggest joke is that unelected officials took over Washington and are orchestrating the daily news. Everyone with a security clearance or a badge in America is above the law since the coup. The next election is shaping up to be as big of a sham as the last. Do you know why Sarah Palin’s bus tour was really canceled? Do you know why she stayed 30 miles away from the second debate and chose the death of Steve Jobs to announce that she’s not running? Know what leaked out? Sarah Palin and Cain aren’t in the race for the same reason, the truth leaked out.

      4. We Are Watching You says:

        “Shawn Mathews”, we have told you that we are watching you. Stop.

    2. Justin Time says:

      I call BS. No prisoner in any prison “gets over” on the institution more than the medical staff.

      If you really were an RN in a prison, you’d be getting paid nearly twice the average RN, placing you well over the 100k bracket. Plus you would have plenty of opportunities to get in considerable OT. I’m not saying that prison RN’s are overpaid. I am saying that you wouldn’t jeopardize your financial situation to slander the very machine which acts as your benefactor.

      I could be wrong, you could be a dim-witted nurse who hasn’t realized the significance of the dance between medical staff & the inmates, but I suspect you’re a dim-witted something else. Either way …

      1. StopJudgingMe says:

        According to payscale dot com a prison RN makes on average $57k. San Quentin is the highest paid in the industry so I don’t think you can use them as the “average.”

      2. Ronald Jackson says:

        and you have never worked in the prison system. she speaks the trurth inmates game the system 24 7 after 18 years i retired from calif prison system
        the waste is beyond belief i saw a med despensing machine brand new cost over 10,000 never been used then taken out and tossed in the mud to rust away

      3. Frustrated RN says:

        Im not sure I understand your point Justin Time, First i don’t get paid double what other RNs do. Yes i do get a lot of OT at the prison where I’m employed. So? It’s still a waste of taxpayer money. It’s a system that cannot sustain. It will need to change- my salary is irrelevent.

    3. malibu1369 says:

      Ummmm, You just don’t at all understand what typically happens in the prison system, do you. When an inmate has a complaint they fill out a form that must be answered in 14 days for a non emergency, 72 hours for an urgent problem and 24 hours for an emergency. Typically, unless you are not breathing, having a heart attack or unconscious for no reason, you have a 14 day non-emergency, triad be damned because you have so many inmates with health problems.

      You, my unlucky nurse who wants to complain, can go to any hospital emergency room in the country and be treated for any reason in an average of less than 3 hours. You call that better health care.

      Of course, inmates pay little to nothing for their health care. Duh, there is a constitutional reason for this. THEY AREN’T WILLING PARTICIPANTS. They are under the “custody and care” of the State. They wouldn’t be “often times so ill” if they were treated promptly in the first place. Just saying…

  2. Ann G says:

    The services provided to prisoners at Dr’s Hospital have kept that instituion’s doors open when they have been in the most dire need for revenue. Amazing that this is now coming to light now and shame on Healthnet for not being more forthcoming with their “trade secrets”….

    1. A.P says:

      Yes….but the same funds have kept all of the less fortunate patients receiving healt care without any insurance at Doctors Medical Center. The facility sees more non insured, homeless etc…get your facts if you are going to post. The hospital does what it needs to stay open and provide services to the very sick that can’t go anywhere else. About 97% of Doctors patients have no insurance but the hospital does what it can to service the people.

  3. Phillip Moya says:

    I think it’s ludicrous that prisoners are given better care then the public. They should get what the average american gets no more. I read a man robed a bank just to get the medical treatment he needed. They say crime doesn’t pay but I beginning to believe the opposite.

  4. DaPoPoMan says:

    That’s the way of it people. You can blame the bleeding heart liberals who feel these persons have been falsely imprisoned. They believe these people are simply criminals because of factors outside their control. Sorry, no one forced them to start using drugs and no one made them commit their crimes. Our justice system is a joke and the new realignment plan under AB109 is creating open season for criminals to pretty much go out and do whatever they want to whoever they want. They have no reason to fear being incarcerated.

    1. pitter43 says:

      You can pretty much trace any problem in America right back to liberals.

  5. Agata Urban says:

    They will pay for your health care if you are a prison inmate. They will only help you with your mortgage if you stop paying. Am I the only one who thinks the government is rewarding the bad and punishing the good?

  6. snap says:

    “One out of four Californians have no health care” why does California fund food stamps, healthcare, education and housing subsidies for illegal immigrants?

  7. SerfCityHereWeCome says:

    Hmmm…Grandma has cancer and gets handed a pain pill and told to suck it up but taxpayers get to spring for Charlie Manson’s surgery when he decides he wants to be Charlotte. Moonbats, Moonbats, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when it collapses ’round you?

  8. Richard Henkle says:

    And when are we going to put them into perma-sleep?

  9. laffin'atcha says:

    “But why were some inmates, including those on death row, being sent to outside hospitals for sleep studies?”
    Because it’s FRICKING California. The land of liberal do-gooders who do NOT think about it’s going to be paid for. The only sleep study for death row prisoners should be a study of how much of a drug it takes to make them sleep permanently…

  10. Dr. Max says:

    Government is a scam, a ripoff, a game that is meant to separate you from your wealth. Wealth that is extracted through taxation with the threat of deadly force if you don’t pay. Government is men and women providing services at the barrel of gun. If they were really there to protect you and your property, they wouldn’t be the first to use confiscation and deadly force.


  11. Eddie George says:

    This is fine, because they will never see their death in California, even if on death row. The fact that they spent this much money is the issue at hand. They don’t freaking have it!

  12. Ron says:

    Hopefully when they are put to sleep, they won’t wake up.

  13. Jason Roskopf says:

    This is what’s wrong with America today… 1/4 of California’s citizens have no health care coverage and as soon as somebody finds out that the prisoners are getting health care (many of which are Lindsay Lohan types who’ve never harmed anyone) the impulse is to revoke the prisoners medical treatment rather than to bring coverage to those who lack it. Like it or not human health care is a shared social responsibility.

  14. Chuey says:

    I am an amateur chemist and would like to conduct my own prison sleep research using potassium cyanide. In the interest of science..

  15. John Wolf says:

    California is going down the drain. They are in a death spiral.. Every time they raise tax rates, more taxpayers leave the State. After a while, you will have no taxpayers.

    Good luck California, you will need it. Electing Governor Moonbeam was not a smart idea.

  16. JeroldS says:

    As one in Law Enforcement working in a SF county jail system, there are similarities between the Prison System and jail systems. Ms. Clark us to work in the SF Jail System, and I will say, she got a lot done.

    When hired, she quickly realized the SF Jail System had become the dumping ground for problem nurses in the Dept of Public Health. In a matter of a year, she removed about 11 of those problem children who slept on the job, stole medications, you name it. She quickly realized the waste in SF.

    We have the jail built in 1996 at 7th St. It actually has a full scale operating room. It was designed to be able to treat inmates and stop the ridiculous trips to SFGH. Nurses/Doctors would be able to do stitches, take X-rays, Dialysis, deal with all sorts of health related issues, like the Dental Unit. The Dental unit handles all work in custody.

    Reducing the number of trips by officers to SFGH saves a ton of money. Yet, Ms. Clark was never able to get the jail medical facility to its full potential. Why? Because of the lead doctor overseeing the Jail Health System. He refuses to allow nurses to do these duties, and thus, we have constant daily trips to SFGH. What an utter waste.

    Now, we have many nurses, some who like to play Farmville, shop on Ebay, play Solitaire on the computer while working; thinking no one is seeing this. It really puts down those nurses who are constantly on their feet and dealing with , as noted in other posts, the game of inmates constantly wanting to see a nurse.

    Overall, the new facility at Quentin will save money, a lot of it. And, while we all feel criminals should pay the price of their crime, you have constitutional laws and rulings which govern against inhumane treatment. We may not like it, but we have to live with it.

    I agree with the Senator, the system needs to be more transparent and more corrections have to be made

  17. John Wolf says:

    California is going down the drain. The US has no business bailing them out. California chose to destroy themselves.

  18. John Wolf says:

    Obama should be Governor of California. That way, we would get rid of two problems at once.

  19. seenbetterdaze says:

    If this disgusting story does not prove how corrupt, fraudulent, and AntiAmerican our system has become then nothing will. Only half the citizens actually PAY taxes, and are being abused by the system. When criminals are able to receive better medical treatment than the hard working citizens who PAY the taxes…something is defintely broken, busted, and corrupt in this country…. The State Governments, Congress of the USA and the rest of the blood suckers who force only half the citizens to PAY for ALL the rest …even murderers and other criminals…many of whom are NOT even Citizens.

  20. LTG says:

    I don’t get it. Why not use their Dead Row Congressmen and Senators instead? Save the taxpayers a log of money! (in more ways than one)

  21. ren says:

    Your kidding right? Spending money on “sleep studies” for death row inmates….Send me the money and I’ll tell you why they are not sleeping well, for a fraction of the costs….Just another DUH moment for us Californians….

  22. August says:

    Quit sending people to prison for ridiculous make-believe crimes created out of thin air by drug addicted & alcoholic on-the-take Lawmakers,,,

  23. G LLL says:

    What a joke. Good people that haven’t commited any crimes are without health care, jobs and food. Yet we find it essential that these jail birds get a state of art facility for when they don’t feel well.
    Wheh are we going to wake up in this country

  24. J.V. says:

    Unfortunately, the real criminals who should be in prison are those voters and politicians that have created this wonderful utopia where these “winners” of our society pay no taxes, provided free room, board, ulities, TV, excerise equipment, health care . . . and are protected by cutting edge security technology They have it nearly as good as California’s 5 or 6 million illegals residents.

  25. Erik says:

    Prison is a bad idea in general. Holding a person during trial makes sense but after that demand justice by restitution and/or corporeal punishment. Restitution should be the primary means and not to the state but to the people that are harmed by the crime. Garnishing a person wages until restitution is complete. Three strikes and you are out literally. Some form of indentured servant hood until your fines are paid in full. I am sure we could use technology to enforce/regulate this. You don’t work and earn your keep you commit a slow suicide. It is your choice, your freedom.

    1. Bob says:

      Erik for President!

  26. dirtmover says:

    Sleep study? Lets work on the permanent dirt nap these fine members
    of society are supposed to be taking.

  27. anony says:


    STOP putting so many people in prison! We have the technology for house arrest/tracking. Use it. We have a larger prison population than even China. Let people be free, end stupid laws.

  28. Bob says:

    In “The Republic”, Plato and his students came up with an interesting approach to Death Row. Paraphrasing, when someone is convicted of a heinous crime, you lock him up in a one-cell jailhouse in the middle of the Mojave Desert. You feed him enough to sustain his life. When a second person commits a heinous crime, you take the first guy out of the jailhouse, shoot him, and put the second guy in.

    Medical care for these slimeballs? Why?

  29. Choice says:

    Argggg 39 comments before me and nothing solved.

  30. Gene says:

    This is nothing, I spent time at Marin General watching out for my brother in law when he was injured in the icu. There were 3 or 4 inmates there with 4 guards per shift each, 2 in the room and 2 outside. For days and Days.

    Later at Kentfield rehap center down the street, there was a wing of inmates. Again 2 guards in the room and 2 outside. Funny, they were guarding a prisoner with all these guards that had just had heart surgery. The wing looked like a dance party, with the hall full of guards hanging out. Check the place out tomorrow – its the best rehab center in the bay, and at the disposal of inmates.

  31. skylar says:

    Don’t blame the liberals. Everyone is to blame. Get your butt off the couch and do something to make a difference. Volunteer if you have a skill that can cut waste like this. You can complain all you want but nothing creates change faster than action.

  32. L u says:

    One guy commented”…we all feel criminals should pay the price of their crime, you have constitutional laws and rulings which govern against inhumane treatment…” If an inmate has a blister and has the prison doctor examines it instead of taking him to an outside facility how can that be inhumane? Folks have to start using their heads about this kind of taxpayer’s money being wasted. This world is full of injustices just like this. It will never stop. That is one thing I can guarantee.

  33. Berlet98 says:

    Dead Men Talking, Walking, and Choosing

    Capital punishment in America, the execution by the government of a felon convicted by a jury of his peers for grievous crimes, usually murder, is widely regarded to be as barbaric as the crimes themselves. The proffered argument is that it makes no sense to kill people to show people that killing people is wrong.

    There is some truth to that position, that the state is acting as viciously as the murderer and that executions serves no purpose other than societal vengeance. There is also some truth to the view that such punishment is merited based on the extreme nature of the crime and it serves as a deterrent for future murderers.

    Valid points of view have been posed on both sides, none of which have resolved the issue.

    In any event, in the United States and in many of the other 58 countries that still execute criminals, capital convictions have become almost farcical. Due to mandated appeals processes, the convicted are housed, fed, and afforded other perks for decades and the methods used today to execute them are usually far more humane than the murders they committed.

    American death row inmates are well aware of their rights and privileges. Many flaunt them, one even got to choose his method of execution.

    Danny Robbie Hendley, Jr., found guilty of killing a 17 year old girl in 2009 in North Carolina and suspected of killing two other women, knows he has many years to live. He seems to relish life on death row and utilizes his time to taunt the families of his victims.

    In an open letter published in The Gaston Gazette, Hendley brazenly wrote, ”Is the public aware that I am a gentleman of lesiure, watching color TV in the A.C., reading, takeing [sic] naps at will, eating three well balanced hot meals a day. I’m housed in a building that connects to the new 55 million dollar hospital with round the clock free medical care 24/7. . . Kill me if you can, suckers. . . Ha! Ha! Ha!”

    Why Hendley sent that letter to the Gazette is obvious: He is an unrepentant snake. Why the Gazette saw fit to print his vile, sneering rant is a question which should be directed to the editors.

    Another good question is why California treats convicted rapists, murderers, thieves, et al. better than it does taxpayers.

    Inmates at San Quentin are not only getting free room, board, and health care. They are also indulged with medical attention many Californians, 25% of whom have no medical insurance coverage, are denied. . . (Read more at

  34. Mike says:

    I have had knee pain for about 5 years now. I’m in pain everyday all day. Yet I can’t afford the surgery to take care of it. Then I see Prisoners are getting knee surgery for injuries obtained while playing sports in the prison.

    Every day I’m in pain. But everyday I continue to go to work and pay my bills. All while these guys are getting the health care I can’t afford.

    CA is a joke. 12% of the population, 32% of the welfare recipients and the highest tax rate in the country. All so that others can get better health care then me.

    Some might argue that I have more, my life is better then these people. But with free health care I’d imagine they will live longer. Then who has the better life?

  35. weRalldoingtime says:

    You can thank the tough on crime mentality of politicians to win votes & those who have voted for more tough on crime laws~the 3 strikes for example which has overwhelmed the prisons & more prisons had to be built for big profits.Time to amend the 3 strike law, the hidden language in that law deceived the people.