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A Life Sentence of Expense

The state is spending millions to care for incapacitated inmates. Their release might save money but would raise questions of justice.

May 05, 2003|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

CORCORAN, Calif. — Steven Martinez lies in bed in a small, bare room, day after day, month after month. He can blink, speak, swallow and turn his head. Nurses must help him with everything else.

They bathe him, turn his body every two hours and spoon-feed him three meals a day. When he wants to make a phone call, a staff member dials the number and holds the receiver to his ear.

His care comes courtesy of the California penal system. Convicted of rape and assault in 1998, Martinez was sent to prison for the rest of his life. Two years ago, fellow inmates stabbed him in the neck, leaving him a quadriplegic.

Corrections officials say Martinez, 34, may be California's most expensive inmate. His hospital cell in the high-security prison here costs $730 a day -- not counting medical procedures, drugs and the salaries paid to his guards. Last year, a bedsore carved a crater in his back, requiring surgery and six months in a private rehabilitation center. The bill: $620,139, nearly half of which was paid to two corrections officers who watched him around the clock.

If he lives another 30 years, just meeting his basic needs could cost California $8 million or more.

Martinez is one of about 120 state prisoners who need help with bathing, eating and other functions of daily life. Some are paralyzed or missing limbs; others suffer from brain injuries or Alzheimer's disease. Thousands more are old, feeble or gravely ill.

The state's budget crisis is prompting questions about whether the expense of incarcerating such inmates can be justified when legislators are contemplating cuts to child care centers, aid for the blind, community colleges and other programs.

The leader of the state Senate, Democrat John Burton of San Francisco, thinks not.

In his view, convicts hobbled by disease or disability belong in lower-cost settings, perhaps nursing centers with minimal security. Some could be released outright, the senator said, or monitored in their homes by using electronic bracelets.

"What are these guys going to do? Run you over with their wheelchairs?" Burton asked. "There has to be a better way to deal with them, a way that saves money without threatening public safety."

Martinez's parents make much the same argument. They are pushing to have him moved to a private medical facility or released to their home in San Diego. They have sued the Department of Corrections, accusing it of medical malpractice and arguing that their son cannot get adequate care behind bars.

Most states have laws permitting the medical release of felons deemed unlikely to commit new crimes. Some states, under budgetary pressure, are expanding the definition of who qualifies so they can thin out their prison populations. Missouri frees those who require nursing home care; Arkansas paroles inmates with permanent physical or mental disabilities.

In California, which has the nation's largest inmate population, prisoners can apply for "compassionate release." But the criteria are stiff: A convict must be judged terminally ill and within six months of death. Last year, 39 prisoners were considered for compassionate release and 12 were freed.

"You may not have to be standing at the Pearly Gates to qualify, but you have to be able to see them from where you are," said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University and an expert on elderly and infirm convicts.

Sen. Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego) has put forth legislation (SB 278) to allow medical parole of incapacitated convicts. Gov. Gray Davis has been silent on the bill, which passed its first legislative test in early April, but he opposes freeing any inmate simply to save money.

For Martinez's victim, talk of an early release is unsettling. A nanny in San Diego, she said she has struggled with the trauma of the assault, and is only now getting her life back on track.

Five years ago, a drunken Martinez knocked the woman to the ground with his truck while she and a friend were walking outside a San Diego nightclub. He then abducted her, drove to an isolated area near Mission Bay and raped her.

Martinez, a San Bernardino native who had previously served prison time for assault with a deadly weapon, was given double penalties for the new crimes, leading to a sentence of 165 years.

"I'm already nervous all the time, always watching my back," said the victim, whose name is being withheld because of the nature of the crime. "If he was out, that would all be worse.... I don't think I deserve that."

Martinez, who is appealing his conviction, applied for compassionate release in 2001 on grounds that his care is unusually costly and difficult, and that he is no longer a threat. The prison warden supported the request, citing a doctor's conclusion that Martinez "cannot hurt a fly."

But the director of corrections, Edward Alameida, rejected it, saying Martinez's condition "does not negate the seriousness of his commitment offense or justify his early release."

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