Calif. Prison System Debates Comatose Inmates

The California Department of Corrections (search) spent $1.27 million in just six months on medical care for six comatose inmates last year — and that's not counting more than $1,000 per day for each guard it cost for security.

The debate raging in Florida over whether brain-damaged woman Terri Schiavo (search) wished to die — and who should decide her fate if she is unable to — is the same debate going on in the California prison system, said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (search).

One inmate who was at Delano Regional Medical Center from Nov. 7, 2003 until he died Jan. 12, cost the department $851,880 by year's end.

The state may need to find a way for inmates to sign release forms to indicate their health care wishes and do a better job notifying family members, said Romero, who plans an April 14 hearing on the problem.

Although inmates are in state custody, private doctors make medical decisions once inmates go to outside hospitals, and there is often confusion over when family members should be brought in to help with care decisions.

"It becomes very difficult because nobody knows who's in charge," Romero said.

That was the case with Daniel Provencio, 28, who was treated under guard for 29 days after he was shot in the head with a supposedly non-lethal foam bullet in a Jan. 16 prison altercation. His medical care cost more than $100,000, not including the $30,624 in security costs, according to the department.

Provencio's case was unique because he was guarded and treated for 25 days after doctors declared him to be brain dead, four days after the shooting, department Director Jeanne Woodford wrote to Romero.

Woodford said a task force will be reviewing the department policy.