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Private Prison Medicine, Foster Care Benefits for Dual Status Kids, Presidential Pot Pardons, Sheriff Jim McDonnell on WWLA? …and More

July 16th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


The private medical company, California Forensic Medical Group, is the largest prison health care provider in CA. And, not unlike the largest prison health care company in the nation, Corizon Correctional Health Care, CFMG continues to rake in money despite being mired in scandals and lawsuits alleging mistreatment, neglect, and short-staffing.

CFMG holds medical care contracts for 64 detention facilities in 27 of California’s 58 counties. Most of the counties are rural, like Imperial and Yolo, but CFMG is also responsible for thousands of inmates in counties like San Diego, Ventura, Santa Cruz, and it’s hometown, Monterey.

Around 200 inmates have died in the last decade under CFMG medical care, and more than 80 lawsuits have been filed against the company in the last 15 years, according to an investigation by FairWarning.

FairWarning’s Brian Joseph takes an in depth look at CMFG’s history (which is not unlike many other private prison companies), as well as the stories of inmates who died seemingly preventable deaths while under the care of CFMG. Here are some clips:

The outsourcing of medical care in jails and prisons reflects a nationwide push for privatizing government duties. The private sector, outsourcing advocates say, offers better services at a lower cost. But while other government services have outspoken constituencies, jails and prisons do not. Inmates usually have little clout to demand change if they believe they are receiving poor health care.

“Society doesn’t really care about prisoners,” said Neville Johnson, a Beverly Hills lawyer. Johnson sued CFMG and Yolo County, near Sacramento, over the August 2000 jailhouse suicide of Stephen Achen. A drug addict, Achen warned some jail staffers that he could become self-destructive but promised another that he wouldn’t hurt himself. “As we got into it, we were astonished at what we felt [was] the deliberate indifference of the jail staff and especially CFMG, which is nothing but a money-making machine,” Johnson said. CFMG settled with the Achen family for $825,000 after a judge found evidence of medical understaffing, according to media reports.

The private sector started providing health services to jails and prisons in the 1970s, when negligent medical care became a foremost prisoners’ rights issue. Inmates across the country filed lawsuits alleging inadequate care. Courts ruled that depriving prisoners of competent medical services was unconstitutional and in some cases ordered states and counties to take corrective action. Wardens and sheriffs, lacking backgrounds in medicine, turned to outside contractors for help.


Ryan George, age 22, was serving time for domestic violence in 2007 when he experienced the onset of a sickle cell crisis, a painful, but treatable, condition where blood vessels become clogged by the misshapen cells. For days, Valerie says, Ryan called her from jail in obvious pain, complaining that he was being neglected.

Finally, when he was found “unresponsive” in his bed, Ryan was taken to the hospital, according to court records. But after a couple of days, of treatment, doctors there decided Ryan was exaggerating some of his symptoms and sent him back to jail. Shortly thereafter, Valerie said, a CFMG doctor called her, saying Ryan was getting worse. She says she demanded that the doctor take him to the hospital, but he said “that’s not a possibility.”

The company doctor acknowledged in court papers that he spoke with Valerie George, but disputed her version of what was said. CFMG executives also acknowledged that the company would have incurred more costs if Ryan was sent back to the hospital, but denied that financial concerns had anything to do with his death.

A few days later, Ryan George was found dead in his cell, with dark green fluid oozing from his mouth and eyes, according to the civil complaint. A subsequent Sonoma County Grand Jury investigation found that the “Sheriff’s (department) and CFMG medical staff failed to fully intervene” when Ryan’s condition worsened. “He was not re-hospitalized, despite exhibiting symptoms of jaundice, severe dehydration, bone pain, altered level of consciousness and loss of urinary and bowel control,” the grand jury found. Said Valerie George, whose family settled with CFMG: “They let him die like a dog in a cage because this company would not pay for him to get proper medical treatment.”


“Why wasn’t an ambulance called?” a guard later recalled someone asking when he wheeled a pale Dau into El Centro Regional Medical Center at about 9:30 a.m. on July 23, 2011. A doctor rushed to her side and felt her neck. “She has no pulse!” the doctor yelled, according to a deposition given later by the physician. Hospital staff cut off her jumpsuit and attempted CPR, but it was no use: at 9:56 a.m. Dau was declared dead.

A subsequent autopsy by Imperial County Chief Forensic Pathologist Darryl Garber determined Dau died of heart disease with a contributing factor being acute drug intoxication from the multiple medications she was prescribed. Garber also discovered Dau had a bed sore on her lower back, suggesting that she had been unable to move for some time.

Later, according to the minutes from a meeting about Dau’s death, CFMG and jail staff decided that an ambulance should have been called and that Dau was “probably” going through Valium withdrawal.


A CA bill to give foster kids involved in the juvenile justice system (often called “dual status” or “crossover” youth) extended foster care benefits was approved unanimously by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

SB 12, authored by Senator Jim Beall (D-San Jose), would close a loophole in existing law, and ensure kids who turn 18 while in juvenile detention receive extended benefits like their non-justice-system-involved peers.

Sawsan Morrar has more on the bill and its progress for the Chronicle of Social Change. Here’s a clip:

DeAngelo Cortijo, an intern at the National Center for Youth Law, spoke at Tuesday’s hearing about his firsthand experience as a crossover youth. Cortijo was removed from his home when he was two after his mother attempted suicide. He was placed with family members, and at one point returned to his mother, before he was sent to foster care amid reports of abuse. Since then, he was in over four detention facilities, and ran away from group home placements several times.

“When I was released, I faced many challenges,” Cortijo said. “I now have to fend for myself as an adult. I had to find stable and clean housing. I didn’t have an income to support myself.”

Cortijo was left depending on others for the most basic needs like purchasing a toothbrush or borrowing socks.

“Do you know what that does to a person’s confidence? It completely destroys it,” he said.

With extended benefits in place, Cortijo would have received about $800 a month, just like other transition-age foster youth, to help pay for food, housing and school.

Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Youth Law Center, said these probation youth in transition are exactly who extended foster care aims to support.

“We know that the rates of homelessness, unemployment and incarceration for young people who cross from dependency to delinquency are double to triple the rates for youth who are just in dependency or delinquency,” she said.

According to the Youth Law Center there are approximately 4,000 probation-supervised foster youth in California. There are over 50,000 foster youth in the state.


On Monday, President Barack Obama announced that he had commuted the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders, bringing the total number of approved commutation petitions up to 89. While this is a good step in the right direction, there are 95,265 federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses.

The Atlantic’s Zach Hindin makes the case for presidential pardons for all marijuana offenders in federal prison. Former President George W. Bush commuted 11 sentences and pardoned 189 during his 8 years in office, and Bill Clinton commuted 61 sentences and pardoned 396. Our current president has granted just 64 pardons, thus far. (If you are fuzzy on the difference between the two, a pardon wipes a person’s criminal record and restores rights, a commutation shortens a person’s sentence, but does not offer a clean slate.) Obama’s latest move seems far less historically meaningful when compared to Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s thousands of post-prohibition acts of clemency for alcohol offenses, says Hindin.

Here’s a clip:

…Compared with the last few administrations, commuting the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders may seem historic. But history sets the bar higher still.

In May 1919, Woodrow Wilson was in Paris negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. It’s hard to think of a moment when any president had a better reason to shelve domestic affairs, but on Monday, May 12, Wilson telegraphed his secretary in Washington: “Please ask the Attorney General to advise me what action I can take with regard to removing the ban from the manufacture of drink.” A week later Wilson sent another cable, this time to Congress: “It seems to me entirely safe now to remove the ban upon the manufacture and sale of wines and beers.”

Congress declined, and instead introduced a bill to shore up the Eighteenth Amendment, known as the Volstead Act. Wilson vetoed the Act. Congress overrode his veto. With no legislative recourse, Wilson chipped away at Prohibition using the executive power that Congress could not check: his pardon. By the end of his second term, alcohol offenders accounted for more than one-fifth of Wilson’s clemency recipients.

Unlike Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt had been ambivalent about Prohibition. During his time in the New York State Senate, the powerful Anti-Saloon League had praised Roosevelt’s “perfect voting record.” Even after the repeal of Prohibition became central to his presidential platform, according to one biographer, “the story persisted that whatever Roosevelt might say, there was a voting record to prove he was ‘dry’ at heart.” But when Prohibition was repealed by popular demand in 1933, FDR went on a pardoning spree that outclassed his predecessors, approving alcohol offenders who had been previously rejected or otherwise hadn’t even applied.

Wilson used his pardon to protest an impossible law. Roosevelt used his to acknowledge the change in social norms.

The time when most Americans condoned alcohol consumption despite Prohibition rhymes with our own, when 53 percent of the country supports the legalization of marijuana, and pot laws have been curtailed in 23 states and the nation’s capital. And just as Prohibition offered a legal apparatus for racism, today, the racial imbalances in marijuana arrests and sentencing are so stark that many in this country consider them a proxy for racial control. In 49 states, blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana—in the worst offending counties, by a factor of eight. The limit of this analogy is scale—together, Wilson and Roosevelt issued some 2,000 alcohol-related acts of clemency. In 2012 alone, almost 7,000 people were convicted in federal courts for marijuana offenses, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, more than for any other type of drug.


After 10 jail employees were relieved of duty this past weekend in connection with alleged jail abuse, LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell appeared on KCRW’s Which Way, LA? with Warren Olney to discuss jail abuse, transparency, mental illness, and his hopes for the facility that will replace the crumbling Men’s Central Jail.

Take a listen.

In another segment, investigative reporter Jeffrey Sharlet talks about his in-depth GQ story about the March LAPD shooting of Charly Keunang, an unarmed homeless man in Skid Row, and the unreleased officer body cam videos he was able to watch of the incident.


In 2013, three Gardena police officers fatally shot Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, an unarmed man they mistook for a robbery suspect. According to officers involved, Diaz Zeferino appeared to be reaching for a weapon. The city settled the resulting lawsuit to the tune of $4.7 million, but refused to release videos of the shooting, because of privacy concerns.

On Tuesday, federal Judge Stephen V. Wilson ordered the city of Gardena to release the videos. And at a press conference on Wednesday, an attorney representing Diaz Zeferino’s family called for a federal civil rights investigation into the shooting.

Here’s a clip from the KPCC update:

Mercardo said the videos allow the public to see for themselves what took place shortly after police stopped Diaz Zeferino and two others suspected of stealing a bike.

“The public can be the judge of what really happened that night,” she said, adding the family had been searching for justice, not money.

Diaz Zeferino’s brother, Augustine Reynoso, holding aloft a picture of the two of them embracing, said he wanted to bring the Gardena police department to account for the death of his brother.

“Money is not what’s important in life. Life is what’s important in life,” he said through Mercado, who translated his comments. “I want justice to be done. I want the Gardena Police Department to be investigated more deeply. That’s why I’m here.”

Posted in Crossover Youth, DCFS, Foster Care, jail, Jim McDonnell, juvenile justice, LAPD, LASD, Marijuana laws, medical care, Mental Illness, Obama, Sentencing, War on Drugs | No Comments »

Video Shows San Bernardino Deputies Beating Man…Nurses Say Health Care in Alameda Jails is Broken…and Walter Scott

April 10th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


On Thursday, video captured from NBC’s NewsChopper4 appeared to show a small crowd of San Bernardino County deputies beating a reportedly unarmed man during an arrest.

The man, Francis Jared Pusok, 30, lead officers on an intense chase, by car, on foot, and finally, on a stolen horse. When deputies caught up with Pusok, the horse bucked, throwing Pusok to the ground. The man, still on the ground, then spread his arms out and then put them behind his back, after which, deputies appear to taser him. Then, the video shows a number of deputies gather around Pusok, punching, kicking, and kneeing the man dozens of times for more than two minutes.

Allegedly the man was then left lying on the ground for at least 45 minutes without medical attention. Pusok is now in a hospital being treated for unknown injuries.

San Bernardino Sheriff John McMahon said he was “disturbed” by the video and quickly launched an internal investigation.

NBC’s Jason Kandel and Tony Shin have the story. Here are some clips:

In the two minutes after the man was stunned with a Taser, it appeared deputies kicked him 17 times and punched him 37 times and struck him with batons four times. Thirteen blows appeared to be to the head. The allegedly stolen horse stood idly nearby.

The man did not appear to move from his position lying on the ground for more than 45 minutes. He did not appear to receive medical attention while deputies stood around him during that time…

Three deputies were injured during the search. Two suffered dehydration and a third was injured when kicked by the horse. All three were taken to a hospital for treatment.


Deputies said the Taser was ineffective due to his loose clothing and a use of force occurred.

“I can certainly understand the concerns in the community based on what they saw on the video,” McMahon told NBC4. “I’m disturbed by what I see in the video. But I don’t need to jump to conclusions at this point, until we do a complete and thorough investigation. If our deputy sheriff’s did something wrong, they’ll be put off work and they’ll be dealt with appropriately, all in accordance with the law as well as our department policy.”


Nurses employed by a troubled private company in charge of health care in Alameda County jails say they will strike if the company doesn’t improve the substandard care provided to inmates.

The Corizon nurses are calling on the company to add more nurses to the rotation. One worker said the ratio can sometimes be as bad as 23 inmate patients to one nurse. She says, at most, the ratio is five patients to one nurse in regular hospitals. The nurses also say medical equipment is often broken or unsanitary.

The understaffing means that medication often goes out hours late, medical intakes are rushed, and sometimes inmates die due to lack of adequate and timely health care, according to the nurses.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers is sending around a strike petition. If union members vote in favor of striking, the decision will be announced to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department and the Board of Supervisors.

Corizon is no stranger to lawsuits. In February, Corizon (and Alameda County) agreed to a record-breaking $8.3 million wrongful death settlement to the family of a jail inmate who was tasered to death by ten deputies while suffering from severe, untreated alcohol withdrawal.

As part of the settlement, Corizon agreed to stop hiring less expensive Licensed Vocational Nurses instead of Registered Nurses (as state law requires) to perform inmate medical intakes.

Think Progress’ Alice Ollstein has the story. Here are some clips:

Clara, who works as a Registered Nurse at the jail, described abysmal conditions including broken or dirty equipment, rushed procedures and severe understaffing.

For example, when inmates are first booked, nurses examine them and ask them about their full medical history. Clara said Corizon’s procedures in this phase, designed to save time and money, puts everyone at risk.

“The patients come in right off the street. They’re often under the influence of drugs. You don’t know what their mental state is,” she said. “They’ve got three nurses seeing three inmates at once in one little cramped room, maybe 15 by 15 feet. So there’s no confidentiality. One inmate is sitting so close he could touch the next one, and we’re asking them very personal questions, like if they’re HIV positive. HIPAA [privacy] laws are totally violated there.”


On Thursday, LA Police Chief Charlie Beck said that as far as he could tell, South Carolina officer Michael Slager’s fatal shooting of the allegedly unarmed, fleeing Walter Scott was “a criminal act.”

The Associated Press’ Tami Abdollah has the story. Here are some clips:

Beck said he would have similarly had the officer arrested based on the video by the bystander. But he also said he’d typically do a more detailed investigation before making such a judgment.

“I will tell you this, based on what I have seen, based on the video, it is a criminal act,” Beck said. “It is well beyond any policies of the Los Angeles Police Department.”


Beck said such an incident impacts all officers, but it doesn’t diminish his pride in their willingness to take risks daily.

“To have somebody 3,000 miles away take away from that by a criminal act, it’s disheartening,” Beck said. “All of us suffer when somebody in the profession acts illegally.”

The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim and Nick Wing have penned a version of what they believe news reports would have looked like, had a bystander not videotaped the shooting. Here’s how it opens:

A North Charleston police officer was forced to use his service weapon Saturday during a scuffle with a suspect who tried to overpower him and seize the officer’s Taser, authorities said.

The man, who has a history of violence and a long arrest record, died on the scene as a result of the encounter, despite officers performing CPR and delivering first aid, according to police reports.

The shooting was the 11th this year by a South Carolina police officer. The State Law Enforcement Division has begun an investigation into the incident.

Police identified the officer involved as Patrolman 1st Class Michael Thomas Slager and the suspect as Walter Lamar Scott, 50, of Meadowlawn Drive in West Ashley. Slager, 33, served honorably in the military before joining the North Charleston Police Department more than five years ago. He has never been disciplined during his time on the force, his attorney said.

The incident occurred behind a pawn shop on Craig Street and Remount Road. Slager initially pulled Scott over for a broken taillight. During the stop, police and witnesses say Scott fled the vehicle on foot. When Slager caught up with him a short distance from the street, Scott reportedly attempted to overpower Slager. Police say that during the struggle, the man gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer.

On Thursday, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division released dash camera footage of the incident. The video shows the initial traffic stop for a broken tail light, which wasn’t captured by the anonymous bystander’s video.

And for some interesting context, the New Yorker’s Jack Hitt delves into South Carolina’s complicated racial history. Here’s a clip:

The police officer was fired and charged with murder. North Charleston’s mayor, Keith Summey, announced, “When you’re wrong, you’re wrong” and said that police officers can’t hide a bad decision “behind the shield.” He said that the police force’s “thoughts and prayers are with the family.” North Charleston’s police chief, Eddie Driggers, said he was “sickened.” South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who rose to office as a darling of the Tea Party, said that the shooting was “unacceptable.” Senator Lindsey Graham called the video “horrific.” Senator Tim Scott, an African-American Republican who grew up in North Charleston, called the shooting “senseless” and “avoidable.” The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, known as SLED, immediately took control of the investigation, and the F.B.I. has opened its own investigation, as well. The victim’s brother told the local paper, “We don’t advocate violence. We advocate change.”

I grew up in Charleston, and, as someone close to North Charleston’s mayor told me, “Before the sun was down, everyone was unified.”

It’s crucial to point out that had the bystander not turned on his smartphone camera, that creaky counter-narrative—I thought he was reaching for my weapon—would almost certainly have given Slager a pass. And no doubt, the swiftness of the political and narrative unity in the shooting death of Scott owes much to the lessons of Ferguson. But South Carolina is not Missouri—its racial past, in fact, is more violent, but its attempts to move away from that history, while less known, have been more bold. The state’s history of violence against black men and women is excruciating to know, or to read. If you are unfamiliar, then Google “George Junius Stinney, Jr.,” “Julia and Frazier Baker,” the Hamburg massacre, or the Orangeburg massacre. That is South Carolina at its worst. But there is a streak of fair-mindedness in the state’s history—an ancient ideal that Mark Twain parodied as coming straight out of the chivalric fiction of Sir Walter Scott’s mist-filled novels of courtly knights. While reserved exclusively for whites for most of its history, this tendency appears from time to time and is always surprising, especially to outsiders.

All Charlestonians are required to know the story of their Civil War-era representative, James Petigru, the state’s only Unionist, who voted against secession. Charlestonians have made a centuries-long career out of tweaking the rest of the state for its rustic views. Petigru opposed withdrawing from the United States back then because, as it is often quoted, “South Carolina is too small to be a Republic, and too large to be an insane asylum.”

But even during the collapse of Reconstruction, when racist Democrats took back control of the state’s government from Republican politicians backed by federal troops, there was a streak of fair play in the reformed Confederate General Wade Hampton, who was elected governor in 1876, and who, in his inaugural speech, said, “It is due, not only to ourselves, but to the colored people of the State, that wise, just, and liberal measures should prevail in our legislation.” (To those writing rebuttal posts right now to argue that this was mere racist palaver, I will note that however rhetorical Hampton’s views were, those earliest attempts at sane post-bellum racial decency in South Carolina were relatively real efforts at moderation, despite the fact they were, absolutely, crushed underfoot by pro-lynching extremists, like “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, who thought that Hampton was out of his mind.) In the mid-twentieth century, a famous Charleston judge named Julius Waties Waring sought to steer a number of criminal cases toward the ideal of fair play, including a hideous police beating of a black man and later a local desegregation case that would eventually merge with others to become Brown v. Board. A cross was burned in the judge’s yard, and he eventually fled the state.

Posted in Charlie Beck, jail, LAPD, law enforcement, medical care, racial justice, unions | No Comments »

“Back on Track LA,” Sheriff and Doctor Duo Fight Trauma, How to Defend Kids Facing Life, and ending CA Prison Healthcare Oversight

March 12th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


On Wednesday, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, and Probation Chief Jerry Powers announced the launch of “Back on Track LA,” an innovative recidivism reduction pilot program that has been launched as a collaborative effort between the LASD, Probation, the AG’s Office, the LA County Child Support Services Dept., several foundations, and schools.

Back on Track provides participating inmates with education and job training, cognitive behavior training, and life skills and customized re-entry coaching.

“Instead of only reacting to crime, we must also focus on prevention to shut the revolving door of the criminal justice system,” says AG Harris. “Back on Track LA will hold offenders accountable to their communities, their families and themselves. This initiative will give participants the skills to become contributing and law-abiding members of society, which enhances public safety.”

Both Harris and McDonnell stressed the urgent need for such a program in California’s various counties, especially Los Angeles.

“At this very moment, 20,000 individuals are incarcerated in the Los Angeles County Jails,” said Jim McDonnell. “Too many of those in our jail and justice system come from broken homes and challenging life circumstances.”

McDonnell listed some of the challenges that the program will need to address, like early childhood trauma and the fact that a high percentage of jail inmates finished school.

“Very few of those filling our jails today have the needed tools to give them a good shot,” he said.

Ninety non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenders, who are now the county’s responsibility post-realignment, are enrolled in the pilot program, which began mid-February.

Once the initial 90 inmates are released from jail, they will receive transitional housing, help with employment, and continued mentoring the entire year after their release. In addition, the college credits they earn through the program during their incarceration can be transferred to any community college in the state.

In order to ensure that the program is actually working, researchers will be part of the process from the very beginning, tracking participants and their outcomes along the way and in the long-term, and measuring them against the outcomes of inmates not involved in the program.

The program is funded through a $750,000 grant through the US Department of Justice’s Second Chance Act (Back on Track was one of just four recipients nationwide), and grants from the California Wellness Foundation, the Rosenberg Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.

Back on Track is intended to become a model for California, and hopefully for the nation, McDonnell said on Wednesday:

“What we are announcing today is not merely an experiment. We know we have too many people in jail who can and should be contributing members of society. Many of those in jail regret the decisions of their youth that landed them where they are today.”

Such programs contribute to public safety, McDonnell said:

“It is tempting to believe that by being tough on criminals by depriving them of education and skills training, we are being tough on crime. But that’s simply not the case.

We can reduce crime by reducing criminals, and we can reduce criminals by giving people the skills they need to get Back On Track.”


Laura Starecheski has another excellent story for NPR about childhood trauma as a critical health issue. This latest story follows a doctor and a sheriff who join forces to combat childhood trauma in poverty-stricken, and high-crime areas in Gainesville, FL.

When the University of Florida’s Dr. Nancy Hardt, a pathologist and OB-GYN, and Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell realized that their respective hotspot maps (Hardt’s a map of children born into poverty, and the sheriff’s a crime map) were nearly identical, the unlikely pair knew they had to take action.

Here are some clips from Starecheski’s story:

The research shows that kids who have tough childhoods — because of poverty, abuse, neglect, or witnessing domestic violence, for instance — are actually more likely to be sick when they grow up. They’re more likely to get diseases like asthma, diabetes and heart disease. And they tend to have shorter lives than people who haven’t experienced those difficult events as kids.

“I want to prevent what I’m seeing on the autopsy table,” Hardt says. “I’ve got to say, a lot of times, I’m standing there, going, ‘I don’t think this person had a very nice early childhood.’ ”

Back in 2008, Hardt was obsessing about this problem. She wanted to do something to intervene in the lives of vulnerable kids on a large scale, not just patient by patient.

So, by looking at Medicaid records, she made a map that showed exactly where Gainesville children were born into poverty. Block by block.

Right away she noticed something that surprised her: In the previous few years, in a 1-square-mile area in southwest Gainesville, as many as 450 babies were born to parents living below the poverty line.

It just didn’t make sense to her — that was an area she thought was all fancy developments and mansions.

So Hardt took her map of Gainesville, with the poverty “hotspot” marked in deep blue, and started showing it to people. She’d ask them, “What is this place? What’s going on over there?”

Eventually she brought the map to the CEO of her hospital, who told her she just had to show it to Alachua County’s sheriff, Sadie Darnell.

So Hardt did.

And, to Hardt’s surprise, Sheriff Darnell had a very interesting map of her own.

Darnell had a thermal map of high crime incidence. It showed that the highest concentration of crime in Gainesville was in a square-mile area that exactly overlaid Hardt’s poverty map.

“It was an amazing, ‘Aha’ moment,” says Darnell.

“We kind of blinked at each other,” Hardt says. “And — simultaneously — we said, ‘We’ve got to do something.’”

Read on.


On Wednesday, the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth released a set of guidelines for providing quality defense to kids facing life imprisonment.

Gabriella Celeste, Child Policy Director at Case Western Reserve University’s Schubert Center for Child Studies, explains why making sure these kids have skilled and thorough representation is so critical:

“Kids are kids. They don’t stop being kids just because our criminal justice system has deemed them ‘adults’ as a matter of legal fiction to justify placing them in the adult system. Our system forgets that kids are still growing, developing, and maturing. This is wrong. Worse yet, the harm caused to a young person cannot be overstated, both due to their unique developmental stage as an adolescent and the damage that results from children inevitably facing more years in prison than adults and being at greater risk for isolation, sexual assault, and other forms of violence and trauma. Having an informed advocate can make all the difference.”

The report calls for a defense team of at least four—an attorney with experience representing kids, an attorney who has represented defendants charged with homicide, an investigator, and mitigation specialist to discuss all possible contributing factors like trauma and poverty and to stress the ways kids’ and teenagers’ brains differ from those of adults. An interpreter should also be on the defense team, if needed.

The guidelines also say defense teams must regularly meet with and maintain open communication with the kids they are representing. Defense teams are also directed to advocate for their clients to be placed in juvenile facilities, and to make sure that those detention centers have proper education, mental health care, and rehabilitation services.

The guidelines are endorsed by dozens of advocate groups, including Gideon’s Promise, the Juvenile Law Center, the NAACP, the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the National Juvenile Defender Center.

Here are some clips from the report:

The representation of children in adult court facing a possible life sentence is a highly specialized area of legal practice, therefore these guidelines address the unique considerations specific to the provision of a zealous trial defense. These guidelines set forth the roles and responsibilities of the defense team for the duration of a trial proceeding and outline child-specific considerations relevant to pre-trial, trial, and sentencing representation. Direct appeal and collateral review are not explicitly addressed in these guidelines.

These guidelines are premised on the following foundational principles:

- children are constitutionally and developmentally different from adults;

- children, by reason of their physical and mental immaturity, need special safeguards and

- children must not be defined by a single act;

- juvenile life defense is a highly specialized legal practice, encompassing the representation
of children in adult court as well as the investigation and presentation of mitigation;

- juvenile life defense requires a qualified team trained in adolescent development;

- juvenile life defense requires communicating with clients in a trauma-informed, culturally
competent, developmentally and age-appropriate manner…

- juvenile life defense counsel must litigate to ensure a meaningful individualized sentencing
determination, in which defense counsel is able to fully and effectively present mitigation
to the court.


The mitigation specialist must investigate and develop a social, psychological, and genealogical history of the child client for purposes of presenting mitigating evidence at sentencing. The mitigation specialist also should work with the child client and his or her caretaker(s) to develop a reentry plan to present at sentencing.

Mitigation evidence includes, but is not limited to: the ability to make a positive adjustment to incarceration; the realities of incarceration; capacity for redemption; remorse; vulnerabilities related to mental or physical health; explanations of patterns of behavior; negation of aggravating evidence regardless of its designation as an aggravating factor; positive acts or qualities; responsible conduct in other areas of life (e.g., employment, education, as a family member, etc.); any evidence bearing on the degree of moral culpability; mercy; and any other reason for a sentence other than life…


On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson revealed a plan to end nearly a decade of federal oversight of healthcare in California’s prison system.

When Judge Henderson initiated the oversight, he said the conditions inmates were living under constituted cruel and unusual punishment: California prisons were averaging one easily preventable inmate death per week due to medical neglect.

(Henderson is also part of the three-judge panel forcing California to bring the prison population down…or else.)

The federal receiver overseeing healthcare in California’s prisons, Clark Kelso, says the situation is much better now: there are more medical staff members, the budget has doubled, and there are 40,000 fewer prisoners. But there are still cracks to be filled in.

Here’s a clip from a blended AP/Sacramento Bee story on the issue:

To address the issues, California over the last decade has:

Spent $2 billion on new medical facilities for prisons;

Doubled its annual budget for prison health care to about $1.7 billion; and

Reduced its prison population by more than 40,000 inmates.

According to a report by court-appointed federal receiver J. Clark Kelso, the state prison system now has:

Adequate medical staff;

Processes to ensure inmates receive care; and

An oversight system to catch problems when inmates do not receive care.

However, Kelso noted in his report that that the prison system still needs to make several improvements, including:

Adequately keeping medical records;

Appropriately scheduling appointments;

Delivering care onsite rather than sending inmates to outside hospitals; and

Upgrading treatment areas.

Under Henderson’s plan, every prison will have to pass an inspection before the feds return some of the control to the state. At that time, Kelso will step back and act as a monitor, with the ability to take back the reins if the state begins to backslide.

Posted in Department of Justice, Jim McDonnell, juvenile justice, Kamala Harris, LA County Jail, medical care, prison, Realignment, Reentry, Trauma | 2 Comments »

LAPD Officers Investigated for Operating Youth Boot Camp, Are SF Juvenile Probation Camps Violating Exercise Rules…and More

August 2nd, 2012 by Taylor Walker

(Skip ahead 48 seconds into video for boot camp footage.)


LAPD officers Ismael Gonzalez and Alex Nava are under investigation for operating a militaristic youth boot camp unbeknownst to LAPD officials. The camp, which has been running since February, employs scare tactics, ridicule, and harsh physical conditions to reform at risk youth.

LA Daily News’ Dakota Smith has the story. Here’s a clip:

The camp, in operation since February, employed aggressive tactics, including taunting and screaming at children by Los Angeles Department of General Services police officers, according to video footage posted on YouTube.

One child taking part in a March class looks in the video no older than 5 or 6 years of age, though most participants appeared to be teens or pre-teens.

“We didn’t know about this program, this wasn’t an LAPD program,” said LAPD spokesman Commander Andy Smith, who said the department will investigate both the class and the conduct of the two officers.

The Department of General Services is also investigating the class, said general manager Tony Royster. The program is not affiliated with the department, Royster wrote in an email.

The Hollywood program was run by two officers, Ismael Gonzalez and Alex Nava, both from the LAPD’s Central Division. In a brief interview over the weekend, Gonzalez said he modeled the program after LAPD’s Juvenile Impact Program, a department-sanctioned boot camp which also uses military-style tactics to scare juveniles straight.

“We saw the program was good and effective, and so we started our own,” he said.

Gonzalez and Nava called their class the Juvenile Intervention Program. A LLC for the class was formed last November, while their website states the program is a registered non-profit. They charged $200 – twice the amount charged by the LAPD’s program.

(Note: In order to get to the LAPD officer’s boot camp footage, you have to make it through a very loud intro in Spanish.)


The San Francisco Youth Commission requested information on SF’s Juvenile Probation Dept. after hearing claims that juvies were not receiving their legally mandated hour of exercise per day. The probation department said they do not keep logs and would not release the information for inmate confidentiality reasons.

California Watch’s Trey Bundy has the story. Here’s how it opens:

The San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department says it is providing detainees with their legally mandated hour of outdoor exercise per day, but it has not provided data substantiating that claim, according to the city’s Board of Supervisors and Youth Commission.

The board asked William Siffermann, the chief of juvenile probation, for the data in May, after David Chiu, board president, said supervisors had heard anecdotal evidence that detainees were not getting their hour of exercise.

Mario Yedidia, director of the Youth Commission, said Siffermann has “told us in no uncertain terms that he would not be providing us with that data because it would violate the confidentiality of detainees.”

Advocates for juvenile detainees say that the hour of exercise is crucial for the young offenders’ physical and mental health.

Siffermann said this week that his staff does not log the participation of each detainee in outdoor activities, but that he has begun providing the commission with information on the overall daily use of outdoor recreation spaces, and that he would do the same for the board.

A 2010 state evaluation of the city’s Juvenile Justice Center, a detention facility near Twin Peaks that typically houses 50 to 80 young offenders who are 13 to 18 years old, found no code violations of any kind.

In an interview on Monday, Chiu asked, “I’d like to understand how the department passed state standards if they have yet to provide us the data to demonstrate that they’re in compliance.”


In an effort to comply with the long-standing court order to improve the medical care prison inmates receive, the CDCR is in the midst of building the largest prison medical facility in the nation.

KPCC’s Julie Small has the story. Here’s a clip:

For years, Californians voted to lengthen prison sentences. That means more felons are behind bars well past the age when chronic disease develops. The federal receiver’s office says that more than half the state’s inmates — nearly 70,000 — get treatment for a chronic condition.

The state is legally required to provide adequate medical and mental health care. It didn’t always do a good job at that.

About a decade ago, when lawyers showed that an inmate a week was dying from lack of care, a federal judge seized control of prison medical care in California and appointed the receiver to improve it. Later, a federal court ordered the state to reduce its prison population to improve medical care.

“This is the way forward,” says Nate Elam, warden at the California Health Care Facility and its medical CEO. “This is probably a turning point for the state of California.”

Elam dons a hard hat to tour the skeleton of one of the main medical building. It’s the size of a couple of football fields, flanked by buildings that are just as big. Elam lists the kind of services they’ll be able to offer in these buildings.

“So we’ve got pharmacy and lab and some of those sorts of services over here. We’ve got procedure areas, dental, rehabilitative services.” He asks Meredith, “Where are we putting the dialysis?”

The idea is to hub the sickest inmates in one place, to save on costs and produce better results. Many of the inmates who’ll be sent to the facility in Stockton need 24-hour nursing care. Right now, a lot of those inmates take up critical care bed space at prisons — and that forces the state to send other inmates to outside hospitals at a cost of $2,000 a day.

Kincaid says the Stockton facility will solve that problem.

“This allows us to shift around that population as they age — have mobility issues and need that long-term care setting, to come to a place where they can accommodate that, free up other beds and keep more people out of outside hospitals,” Kincaid said.

Posted in juvenile justice, LAPD, medical care, prison | 2 Comments »

Tattoo Removal for Former Prostitutes, Two-Thirds Louisiana Prison Doctors Have Disciplinary Records, and Ralph Nader Wants Prez Candidates to Address Prison Issues

July 31st, 2012 by Taylor Walker


A new California bill seeks to provide free tattoo removal services to former prostitutes and others branded by tattoos meant to identify them within the sex trade. (Homeboy Industries is currently providing the service for free.)

Megan O’Neil has the story for the Pasadena Sun. Here’s how it opens:

A man’s name is scrawled across Krystal Lopez’s neck in black lettering like that of a centuries-old manuscript.

It is a bitter souvenir for the 18-year-old Pasadena resident, who has worked hard to sever ties with the former pimp who inspired it and the lifestyle it represents. She has started laser treatments to have the tattoo removed at Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit supporting ex-gang members that provides the service for free.

Lopez doesn’t fit the Homeboy profile, though. She has never been in a gang, and as a result, she and others like her are deep in the queue.

“There are girls I know who have three different people on them,” Lopez said. “There is a huge waiting list for [removal services]. The priority is always the gang members.”

The wait soon may be pared down. Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) is shepherding through the California Legislature a bill that would expand the pool of people eligible for state-facilitated, federally-funded tattoo removal services to include those tattooed for identification in human trafficking or prostitution.


Nine out of the fifteen resident doctors at Louisiana state prisons have received sanctions by the state medical board for criminal activity ranging from drug dealing to sex crimes.

The Times-Picayune’s Cindy Chang has the story. Here’s how it opens:

Of the 15 doctors working full-time at Louisiana state prisons, nearly two-thirds have been disciplined by the state medical board for issues ranging from pedophilia to substance abuse to dealing methamphetamines.

Two have served federal prison time. Five are still on probation with the medical board and have restrictions on their licenses, including bans on prescribing controlled substances. Altogether, nine have received the rare black mark of a board sanction.

Louisiana state prisons appear to be dumping grounds for doctors who are unable to find employment elsewhere because of their checkered pasts, raising troubling moral questions as well as the specter of an accident waiting to happen. At stake is the health of nearly 19,000 prisoners who are among the most vulnerable of patients because they have no health care options.

About 60 percent of the state’s prison doctors have disciplinary records, compared with 2 percent of the state’s 16,000 or so licensed medical doctors, according to data from the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners. The medical board is aware of the prison pipeline — in fact, a board-employed headhunter has sometimes helped problem doctors get prison gigs.

“Aside from being unethical, it is dangerous,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, a physician and director of health research at the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. “You’re winding up having people who don’t have any choice being where they are, getting taken care of by people with demonstrable previous records and problems with the way they practice medicine.”


Ralph Nader’s new opinion piece for the Register Citizen explores the problems within the current prison system and the corruption of the privatized prison industry. Here’s a clip:

Ever visit a major prison? The vast majority of Americans have not, despite our country having by far a higher incarceration rate per capita than China or Iran. Out of sight is out of mind.

Imagine the benefits of the average taxpayer touring a prison. The lucrative prison-industrial complex would definitely not like public exposure of their daily operations. Prison CEOs have no problem with a full house of non-violent inmates caught with possession of some street drugs (not alcohol or tobacco). Our horrendous confinement system cannot change when it clings to perverse practices such as cruel, costly, arbitrary, mentally destructive solitary confinement (again, the highest in the world, see: Corporate profits drive the prison system’s insanity.

Indeed, for the giant Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), times are booming. CCA builds their prisons or buys or leases public prisons from financially strapped governments. Barron’s financial weekly can always be expected to give us the Wall Street perspective. In a recent article titled “Ready to Bust Out,” writer Jonathan R. Laing ( is bullish on CCA stock. He thinks it could double to more than $50 a share if the company were to convert to a real estate investment trust (REIT).

Mr. Laing writes that CCA has cost advantages over the public-prison sector, paying lower non-union wages and using more automated technology. Besides, the company is a tough bargainer when it buys or operates public prisons. One CCA condition is that the facility must have 1,000 beds, can’t be more than 25 years old, and get this, “the contract must guarantee a 90 percent occupancy rate.” A guarantee backed by taxpayers no less, unless, that is, the clause works to put more prisoners in jail for longer sentences.

The Barron’s article adds that CCA is counting on “the old standby of recidivism to keep prison head counts growing, filling its empty beds.” To the impoverished rural communities where these prisons are located, it’s about needed jobs.

The criminal injustice system has many faults, other than an inadequate number of beds filled with convicted corporate crooks. As the Justice Roundtable (, composed of a collation of over 50 national organizations, declares, “The current punitive system depletes budgets without making society safer…The Archaic system must be reformed to be rehabilitative, just and accountable.”

How naïve! Don’t these experienced people know that first they have to change the purposes of this system? Instead of wanting more prisoners and treating them in such ways that when they get out they are too unskilled and damaged to overcome the society’s exclusionary pressures that half of them end up back in jail, they should be training these prisoners to be contributing members of society. But that’s the problem of the gigantic prison machine that thrives on returning prisoners.

Posted in criminal justice, Homeboy Industries, medical care, prison, Reentry | No Comments »

Veteran PTSD Stigma, Homeboy & the Solar Industry, and Twitterature…

May 25th, 2012 by Taylor Walker


In honor of Memorial Day–and because it’s an issue of great import–we thought veteran PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and the attached stigma an appropriate topic. PTSD is not given the same validity as visible injury. Veterans who return home from service with invisible injuries such as PTSD are often perceived as weak, instead of deserving of honor and support. Maybe if we were to stop stigmatizing our veterans, we could move next to understanding our inner city kids with PTSD on par with that of service members.

Time’s Frank M. Ochberg addresses the issue. Here’s a clip:

There are a few dozen of us who are considered the pioneers of the modern era of traumatic-stress studies, and most of us are worried  – deeply worried — on behalf of the current generation of veterans with invisible wounds.

We thought that by now there would be access to care whenever needed. We thought that by now there would be clear understanding that PTSD is a wound, not a weakness. We thought that a veteran who served honorably and received a compensable medical diagnosis for PTSD due to his or her service on the field of battle, would receive a medal for sacrifice.

But instead of honor, there is stigma. And this stigma must stop.


Chris Warren, editor of a photovoltaic magazine called Photon, chanced upon two seemingly out of place Homeboys at a solar panel convention in Huston, TX. Warren approached them and learned of Homeboy Industries and the Homeboys’ preparatory training for careers in the solar power industry.

Photon’s Chris Warren’s editorial introduction to the article, alone, is a very worthwhile read. Here’s a clip of the actual article (which made the cover story, but is not available online without a subscription):

In a weak economy, many struggle to get jobs. But the task is much more daunting for those who have been in prison or involved with gang activity. Since 2008, Los Angeles, California-based Homeboy Industries has provided in-depth training for former inmates and gang members to become PV installers. Despite successes, placing graduates in jobs remains difficult.


The New Yorker is testing out Twitter literature with Jennifer Egan, author of 2010′s big prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad‘s new story Black Box. The New Yorker fiction feed (@NYerFiction) will tweet 10 daily installments (the first was May 24th), each beginning at 5:00p.m. PST and lasting an hour.

The L.A. Time’s book blog has more details. Here’s a clip:

Each evening’s Twitter postings constitute one installment, and that installment will appear on the New Yorker’s revamped book blog, Page-Turner, after the installment has finished. Read it there or complete, in the magazine, when it hits newsstands May 28 — look for the science fiction issue, dated June 4 and June 11.

That’s the logistics: In real time (or real-ish time) on Twitter over 10 nights, or serialized on a blog, or all at once in print. It’s an interesting experiment, one which seems designed to cover all the bases — if you don’t have the patience for the online serialization, just read the printed version.


Posted in Books, Gangs, Homeboy Industries, medical care, PTSD, Uncategorized, War | 1 Comment »

Social Justice Shorts

March 29th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon



No, I’m not kidding. The AP has the story.

The University of California will form a special committee to study whether it should take over inmate health care for the state’s troubled prison system, the chairman of the university system’s Board of Regents said this week.

Regents Chairman Russell Gould announced the committee, which university officials said will study issues including the cost, effect on labor relations, and the university’s liability in inmate lawsuits. Health care has been so bad in the state’s 33 adult prisons that a federal judge appointed a receiver in 2006 to make improvements.

A study by a company affiliated with the University of Texas has criticized the receiver for running up costs as part of the improvement effort. It projected California could save more than $4 billion over five years and $12 billion over 10 years by shifting control to the University of California…..

Scott Henson, of the always stellar Texas criminal justice blog, Grits for Breakfast, has some thoughts on the matter.


In the current New Yorker Magazine, Jane Mayer, author of the award-winning The Dark Side, reviews Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack, by former Bush speechwriter Marc A. Thiessen—and yanks the wings and legs off Thiessen’s “facts” one by one. To do so, Mayer uses solid, verifiable, reality-based information that she has acquired the old fashioned way—through real reporting.

The last ‘graph of Mayer’s review is clearly what she means to be the takeaway:

Thiessen’s effort to rewrite the history of the C.I.A.’s interrogation program comes not long after a Presidential race in which both the Republican and the Democratic nominees agreed that state-sponsored cruelty had damaged and dishonored America. The publication of “Courting Disaster” suggests that Obama’s avowed determination “to look forward, not back” has laid the recent past open to partisan reinterpretation. By holding no one accountable for past abuse, and by convening no commission on what did and didn’t protect the country, President Obama has left the telling of this dark chapter in American history to those who most want to whitewash it.

Read the whole thing.


Charlie Savage reports in the NY Times on Monday about the dueling secret memos dealing with how the US is—and isn’t—legally empowered to handle detainees who are deemed to be terrorism-related.

Here are the relevant 2 ‘graphs:

….behind closed doors, the debate flared again that summer,
when the Obama administration confronted the case of Belkacem Bensayah, an Algerian man who had been arrested in Bosnia — far from the active combat zone — and was being held without trial by the United States at Guantánamo. Mr. Bensayah was accused of facilitating the travel of people who wanted to go to Afghanistan to join Al Qaeda. A judge found that such “direct support” was enough to hold him as a wartime prisoner, and the Justice Department asked an appeals court to uphold that ruling.

The arguments over the case forced onto the table discussion of lingering discontent at the State Department over one aspect of the Obama position on detention. There was broad agreement that the law of armed conflict allowed the United States to detain as wartime prisoners anyone who was actually a part of Al Qaeda, as well as nonmembers who took positions alongside the enemy force and helped it. But some criticized the notion that the United States could also consider mere supporters, arrested far away, to be just as detainable without trial as enemy fighters.


More than just a few Catholic church higher-ups have suggested in the last few days that the criticism leveled at the church and at Pope Benedict XVI for actions not taken to protect kids from pedophile priests—here and in Europe—amounts to Catholic bashing, or things even more conspiratorial

LA Times editorial board member Michael McGough blogs about the issue here.

He concludes (and I agree):

The pope may have plausible deniability in the cases reported by the New York Times. But the best defense for the Vatican and its supporters is to contest the accuracy of these and other reports, not to accuse journalists (or activists) of selective criticism, let alone an ignoble conspiracy. Playing the anti-Catholic card just won’t work. The sex-abuse scandal in the United States should have demonstrated that.

Posted in medical care, Obama, prison policy, Social Justice Shorts, torture | 5 Comments »

“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true…”

March 20th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

As most of you likely know by now, on Saturday afternoon, on the eve of the health care reform vote,
Obama spoke to the Democratic caucus who listened with uncharacteristically silent attention. There was no pep rally atmosphere.

Obama centered the speech around a Lincoln quote: “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. We are not bound to succeed, but we are bound to let whatever light we have shine.”

It was a very smart, very emotional, very carefully crafted speech—and worth listening to in its entirety.

Posted in health care, medical care, National issues, National politics | 55 Comments »

USC’S Neon Tommy Reporters Tackle the Swine Flu

November 5th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


One of the models being talked about for its importance to journalism’s future
is the collaboration between journalism schools and public news organizations, particularly non -profits.

Today, Thursday, Neon Tommy, one of the student run online publications coming out of the Annenberg School of Journalism demonstrated a case in point with their exploration and analysis of swine flu deaths in LA County, yet did it without the aid of an outside news agency.

Around 30 students worked on the package
, which consists of an overview of the deaths, what they suggest in the way of patterns and a sharp look at LA County’s shifting policy of secrecy about its records, portraits of seven of those who have died, plus a legal analysis of what LA County and other counties in the state have an obligation to tell us about who exactly is dying from the swine flu. (There is also a map of where the deaths occurred in the county.)

Just to give credit where credit is very much due, the students who worked on the swine flu package are the following.

Reporting staff: Hillel Aron, Briana Galper, Catherine Cloutier, Sharis Delgadillo, Bethany Firnhaber, Jessica Flores, Michael Green, John Guenther, Stephanie Guzman, Neila Jamee, Julia James, Olga Khazan, LeTania Kirkland, Len Ly, Meghan McCarty, Jaclyn Matthews, Jonathan Polakoff, Natalie Ragus, Walter Redmond, Rob Schwandt, Madeleine Scinto, Callie Schweitzer, Amy Silverstein, Susannah Snider, Amanda Tran, Christine Trang, Jessika Walsten and Kelly Williams.

Editors: Mark Evitt and Richie Duchon

Map design: Kim Nowacki

By the way, just so you know, to my knowledge, this project was not part of a class assignment for anyone. (I know it wasn’t for those of my students who worked on it.) The Annenberg reporters simply did the work in their spare time because they wanted to learn and believed the reporting was important.

Posted in medical care, Public Health | 6 Comments »

Obama’s Health Care Moment: Speaking Personally – UPDATED

September 9th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon

There are now more than thirty million American citizens who cannot get coverage. In just a two year period, one in every three Americans goes without health care coverage at some point. And every day, 14,000 Americans lose their coverage. In other words, it can happen to anyone.

But the problem that plagues the health care system is not just a problem of the uninsured. Those who do have insurance have never had less security and stability than they do today. More and more Americans worry that if you move, lose your job, or change your job, you’ll lose your health insurance too. More and more Americans pay their premiums, only to discover that their insurance company has dropped their coverage when they get sick, or won’t pay the full cost of care. It happens every day.

Barack Obama, September 9, 2009

I will return to local issues tomorrow, but the undeniable story of moment-is President Obama’s Wednesday night address to the joint session of Congress.

There are plenty of other people who are commenting well—and poorly—on Obama’s speech (which, for the record, I thought was a game changer), so instead, I want to say something personal here.

Like many Americans, I pay a fortune for health insurance.

It doesn’t matter that I have never (knock on wood) been ill, other than occasional colds and rare bouts of the flu—for which I never, I mean never-— go to the doctor.

My only trip to the hospital in my adult life was to have my wonderful son, Will, nearly 24 years ago.

I pretty much show up in medical offices solely for my single yearly check-up and about once every ten years when I get a nasty case of poison oak (and that only when the dog strays into the stuff without my knowing it).

Furthermore, my weight is on the low side of normal, I exercise regularly, have great cholesterol, perfect blood pressure and no chronic conditions.

Yet, although I have good health, and a gazillion dollar deductible, I pay through the nose every month. Why? Because I’m self employed—which means that my insurance is two or three times the cost of what one pays through an employer. And I am middle-aged. Late middle aged, if I am to be honest.

But that isn’t the most vexing part. Not only is my health insurance—which happens to be Blue Shield—absurdly expensive, it pays for almost zero, unless something truly hideous happens to me. Then, once my deductible is used up, it is supposed to pay most of the bills.

(Operative phrase “supposed to.” We have all heard the horror stories. Many of us know somebody or several somebodies who have lived through the horror stories.)

Moreover, even things that Blue Shield, used to pay for, like yearly mammograms, they have found new ways to get out of. And certainly my insurance doesn’t cover common sense preventative care. For instance, although as a small-boned, slender woman I am the potential poster girl for osteoporosis, my insurance company wouldn’t dream of paying for a baseline bone density scan—although, as a preventative measure, it is likely to save long term costs, not to mention heartache. (I just had one and was thankfully informed I have the spine of a 25-year old. For now, anyway.)

Except for part of one yearly check-up I pay for all doctor visits, plus any of my preventative tests, the diagnostic sonograms that my mammographer rightly advises, my eye exams to make sure that nothing creepy like glaucoma is lurking, whatever—all entirely out of pocket. As I said, my insurance will pay for (most) of one yearly doctor visit. But, if every other year I think it wise to be checked by both an internist and a gynecologist—fuggedaboudit. And any kind of specialist? You must be joking.

If, heaven forbid, I ever do get actually, even marginally sick, or find some suspicious spot on my arm that needs to be removed and biopsied, or maybe get some test for some recently acquired allergy, I fear that my insurance will really go sky high. Or if something worse than that happens, they’ll try to drop me.

So quite frankly I notice that put off having some of the exams, or tests, or check-ups that I know I should have—because there is that niggling, back-of-the-mind worry about my insurance doubling or worse, like my close friend’s did, just because she got a prescription for an inhaler for those occasional moments when she’s at someone’s house and has a mild allergic reaction to cat dander.

Yet, I know I’m churlish to complain at all. I am, after all, one of the incredibly lucky ones. I have health insurance. And I make a respectable amount of money doing work I love— teaching, book writing, and nattering journalistically about issues of social justice— so I can afford my ever-rising premiums and the mortgage on my canyon house, and life’s other necessities.

Millions of other Americans work long hours at one or more jobs, but don’t make enough to afford to pay insurance premiums. This means if they can scrape together the money to take their kids, or themselves, to the doctor, they go. When they can’t, they put it off. Sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Still other Americans—some of them my close friends and family members,—have fought cancer or some other serious illness. Now they are uninsurable on the open market because they once had the bad sense to get sick. If they don’t have jobs that force insurers into carrying them, or spouses with similar jobs—or if they lose their jobs, God forbid—they are screwed.

So, yes, I want health care reform that would make it illegal to deny coverage for preexisting conditions. And I also want the public option.

I’d like to buy into some kind of insurance that doesn’t charge usurious rates, or jump in price by 30 percent or more per year, and doesn’t have a zillion dollar deductible. I would like that insurance to pay—with a non-stratospheric co-pay—for my ordinary doctor visits, and for whatever sensible preventative treatments or tests my test-conservative doctor thinks necessary.

I also want to be able to go to a physician without always having to weigh the larger, long-term fiscal consequences, when going would be the wise and healthful thing to do.

I want that for me, for my son, my nephew, and many of their friends, and for a pile of my own best friends, all of whom also work their butts off, pay their taxes, and either run small business or are also self-employed. And I want it too for the 30 million fellow Americans who cannot get coverage at all, and the many million more who are under insured.

I don’t think it’s too much to ask. I really don’t.

UPDATE: Two USC/Annenberg grad students—Len Ly and Hillel Aron— watched Obama’s health care address along with patients waiting for care at two different LA emergency rooms. Clever idea.

Here’s what they reported.

*Note: I managed to insert some strange moment in coding that erased nearly a fully paragraph from an earlier version of this post, making that section of it confusing to read. Obviously it’s corrected now.

Posted in health care, medical care, Obama | 72 Comments »

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