SACRAMENTO — In the nation's largest prison system, nothing is cheap--and as felons by the thousands are sentenced under "three strikes," the cost of operating this unwieldy system is certain to soar.
As it is, salaries are inflated to entice people to work in a bleak, isolated, often dangerous world. The annual state prison payroll exceeds $2 billion. Top pay for correctional officers equals that of the best-paid big city cops.
Food alone runs $2.45 a day per inmate, but the grocery bill for 130,000 of them will be $194 million this year. An unhealthy lot, they will rack up medical costs of $300 million, and doctors will do everything from delivering hundreds of babies to treating cancer.
A decade into history's most expensive prison building boom, California will spend $3.1 billion this year to run its prisons. Around the turn of the century, the prison population and the cost of running prisons will double, if the "three strikes" law is enforced to the fullest, according to the Department of Corrections and the RAND Corp.
As voters mull the "three strikes" initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot, government experts say the state will be unable to pay for the incarceration of everyone sentenced to prison in years to come, unless sentencing laws are drastically overhauled.
To feed the voracious prison budget, the money will have to come from higher taxes or cuts in state support for other programs--chiefly the University of California and California State University systems, according to financial consultant William Pickens.
"Billions of dollars will have to go from other budgets just for 'three strikes,' " said Pickens, a former vice president at Cal State Sacramento. "The numbers are quite clear, irrefutable."
Craig Brown, undersecretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, said corrections spending can rise without tax increases. As the state emerges from the recession, more people will have jobs and pay taxes, providing more money for all state operations, he said.
"We'll probably get more than our fair share," Brown said. "We'll get 20% of the growth. But we won't get all the growth."
Even without "three strikes," records and interviews show, California's prison system already is strained:
* Growing numbers of inmates arrive with communicable disease--nearly a fourth of them have the tuberculosis virus--adding millions in costs and raising fears that workers will contract disease.
* One in five inmates has mental problems or brain damage--and the Corrections Department has lost initial rounds of two class action lawsuits over care of mentally ill prisoners. The cost of complying with court orders could add tens of millions of dollars to the department's annual budget.
* Staffing levels are among the lowest in the country, although the 23,000-member California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. plans to push for more staff to ensure officers' safety during the expected influx of more unruly prisoners with longer sentences under "three strikes."
* Although a third of its employees are women, the department has a history of sexual discrimination, receiving more complaints and paying out more in damages--$2.2 million--than any other state agency in the 1990s. In August, the department lost a $1.3-million sexual harassment judgment, but it is appealing. Corrections officials are trying to solve the problem by spending $1.6 million on training and investigations of sexual harassment claims.
* The department has trouble finding competent officers and professionals willing to work in desolate locales where most new prisons open. Some prisons have scores of vacancies, and wardens have been dismissed at three new prisons over management problems. Chuckwalla Valley prison at Blythe has had four wardens since it opened in 1988.
"The biggest challenge corrections faces is coming up with adequate experienced, well-trained supervisory and middle-level management staff, because we've grown so rapidly," Brown said.
Corrections administrators try to limit costs by centralizing policies and purchasing among 28 prisons, and reducing inmate programs. But the driving cost remains inmates--and that number rises almost daily.
"If the Legislature takes 20,000 inmates, they can have $100 million (back) and I won't say a word," said Corrections Department director James Gomez.
Next year, the nation's prison population will reach 1 million, and state and federal governments will spend $21 billion to operate their prisons. California's share, $3.1 billion, will be $1.6 billion more than Texas and $1.7 billion more than New York, according to a national study. Although California has the largest inmate population, its cost per prisoner, about $24,000 annually, also is higher than in those states.
What follows is a look at some reasons why California's prisons cost so much:
Political leaders, taking a tough-on-crime stance, are unwilling to shorten or eliminate prison terms for even nonviolent crimes.