STOCKTON — Dignitaries and media members got their first look at California's massive new prison hospital Tuesday, but many of its well-paid staff members have been working there for months.
Psychiatric technician Sod Kommavong commutes up from Ceres. Donna Miles drives over from Tracy. Tonya Juneau just moved to Stockton from Southern California. And R. Addison is trekking down from Jackson every day until she can find a closer place to call home.
With about 2,500 doctors, nurses, technicians and mental health personnel, plus prison guards and support staff being hired, the new California Health Care Facility is stimulating the Northern San Joaquin Valley's economy.
State prison inmates with serious physical or mental health problems will begin arriving in mid-July. The nearly $900 million facility is expected to fill up with 1,722 patients by December.
Running the place will pump $1 billion a year into the local economy, predicted Jeffrey Beard, California's secretary of corrections and rehabilitation.
"This new (facility) is just the latest example of the state's dedication to providing inmates in California with mental health and medical treatment that rivals any prison health care in the country," Beard said at Tuesday's event. "We are serious about the health and well-being of the inmates entrusted to us."
Beard said just building the place generated 5,500 construction jobs, and there's more of them to come. Another medical complex for 1,133 more inmates — the DeWitt Correctional Annex — is being built next door. That $173 million prison will open in the spring.
State officials like to say these new prisons are in Stockton, but they're actually on rural land in southern San Joaquin County — near Highway 99 just north of Stanislaus County.
Kommavong said it takes him only about 30 minutes to drive there from Ceres. He's excited about his new psych tech job, which is very different from his previous post working at a drugstore.
More than 400 psych techs — who will earn more than $56,000 per year — are being hired.
"It was tough getting hired. There was a lot of anxiety making sure I knew all the answers to questions," Miles said about landing her psych tech job. "You're not just competing with people in the Stockton area; you're competing with people from all over California."
Juneau is one of those with lots of psych tech experience who transferred in from another state prison. So far, she's found the rental prices in Stockton more reasonable than those in Southern California.
But Addison, who for the past month has been commuting 90 minutes each way from Jackson, hasn't been happy with valley rental rates. "They raised the prices as soon as they found out this place was opening," she said about apartment complexes in Stockton.
Many of the new prison's correctional officers also are relocating to this region. All the guards are transferring in from other California prisons, but some live close enough to commute.
In-house treatmentLt. A. Green transferred from Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, and he's impressed with the new medical center.
"It will save the state a lot of money because (at the other prisons) we would have to take prisoners out if they needed a doctor or treatment," Green said.
The new 54-building complex includes hospital-like housing for prisoners who require acute and long-term care for medical or psychiatric needs.
It has a diagnostic center, dental clinic and dialysis units to treat diabetes, which is a common disease among elderly and ill inmates. There are labs, a pharmacy, exam and treatment rooms, and therapy rooms.
Each inmate in the all-male prison will get his own room, and they are significantly larger than traditional cells.
"These cells are sized so the nurses can get around the bed," said Andrew Freeman, the project's construction manager. But while they're relatively roomy, Freeman said "the cells are made of steel and they're very secure and sturdy."
Only one guard will be posted on every 30-bed medical ward. Warden Ron Rackley is confident that's enough. "They're here for the specific reason of getting the treatments and health care they need," Rackley said. "They're going to be really ill, lying on a hospital bed, and it's unlikely they're going to jump up and start a riot."
About 600 of the inmates transferring in, however, will be coming because of mental health and acute psychiatric problems. Rackley said those men will need tighter supervision.
Approximately 34,252 inmates — 25.8 percent of California's total inmate population — receive some level of mental health treatment. The most severe of those cases will come to San Joaquin County, which is why so many psych techs are being hired.
The entire DeWitt Correctional Annex, in fact, will be for those with mental health problems.
Besides dealing with felons and those with serious illnesses and mental problems, Rackley said his staff "will have to keep in mind any type of enemy situations" and prison gang affiliations. Properly sorting prisoners, he said, always is a challenge.
But for inmates who behave, the prison will offer overnight stays for family members and conjugal visits in four suites.
The new prisons are part of the state's effort to comply with orders from federal judges who determined that California was not meeting the medical and mental health needs of its inmates.
Over the past decade, California taxpayers have spent nearly $2 billion on 68 projects to upgrade or construct new dental facilities, mental health treatment and medical facilities in its 33 prisons, in addition to building the new San Joaquin County facilities.
"When you factor in the dramatic drop in our prison population and the systemwide health care upgrades we've made, it's clear we are providing a constitutional level of care," Beard said.
Three federal judges, nevertheless, recently ordered the state to further reduce its prison population. Beard said those judges were invited to Tuesday's tour but didn't attend.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2196.