LA Inmate Medical Care More Expensive Than Other Jail Systems

An audit finds that medical care for inmates in LA is higher than five other similar jurisdictions, but the reasons are elusive

By Jason Kandel
|  Monday, Jul 16, 2012  |  Updated 3:23 PM PDT
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LA Jail Under Fire

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Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles

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News Conference: Sheriff Lee Baca - Los Angeles County

Sheriff Lee Baca talks with Conan Nolan about the FBI investigating reports of inmate abuse by deputies in the Los Angeles County jail system.

LA Jail Under Fire

Some critics describe the men's central jail in downtown Los Angeles as a medieval dungeon that can drive inmates to insanity.
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The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department struggles with recruiting and retaining doctors for its jails where the average cost for inmate treatment is 40 percent higher than the average of five similar state and county institutions, according to a new county audit.

Medical services cost an average of $14,638 per inmate in Los Angeles County, compared with an average of $10,210 per inmate in five other jurisdictions -- the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; Cook County, Illinois; New York City; and San Diego and Ventura counties.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officials, which manage county jails, said the costs may be due to factors beyond its control, such as higher salaries, the length of an inmate’s stay, the relative health of inmates and the number of facilities it manages.

“You cannot compare. It’s apples and oranges,” said Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore, who hadn’t seen the audit, but welcomed any recommendations to improve the jails. “We’re the biggest jail system in the nation. The Medical Services Bureau is probably the largest in the country.”

LA jails house some 18,500 inmates daily. That’s about 1,500 more than New York City’s jails, which hold up to 17,000 daily.

But the audit suggests there is no way to know the reasons why LA’s costs are higher because the sheriff’s department doesn’t separate its budget for medical issues from its overall custody budget, wrote Wendy Watanabe, the county’s auditor-controller, in her audit released Friday.

Watanabe recommended the sheriff’s department implement a better system to track and review the workload for medical services.

The sheriff’s department said it plans request from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors $1.1 million for a system to better manage accounting.

The audit also recommends the sheriff work with an outside consultant to better coordinate medical services.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has served as a court-appointed monitor of the jails since 1985, has said the facilities are among the most troubled in the U.S. They have drawn a probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for alleged deputy-on-inmate violence.

It includes Men's Central Jail, what the ACLU called a "windowless dungeon" in downtown L.A. that has been plagued by a "culture of savage deputy on-inmate violence."

Sheriff Lee Baca agreed to allow access to the jails for a study on the feasibility of closing Men's Central.

In April 2012, the ACLU and Sheriff Baca joined in endorsing a new report that recommended closing the infamous jail within two years.

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