Public Employees

For California Doctors, It Pays to Be in Prison


When Dr. Jeffrey Wang closed his medical practice in Visalia, Calif., in 2007 to take a job as a physician treating inmates at Corcoran State Prison, he wondered if he’d made a mistake. The prison, about 175 miles northwest of Los Angeles, is best known as the place where murderer Charles Manson is locked up. “The first few months I regretted it,” says Wang, a 54-year-old internist. “But the pay was much higher and the benefits were much better.”

As a prison doc, Wang made $382,519 in 2010, including overtime and extra-duty compensation. He was one of almost 100 doctors, dentists, and other medical practitioners in the state who made at least $300,000 last year working behind bars, according to state records. Prison physicians in California are the best-paid in the nation, far outpacing their counterparts in other large states including New York, Florida, and Texas. One California prison psychiatrist earned $566,029 last year, including overtime and extra-duty pay.

State prison officials say they’ve had to boost wages to comply with federal court orders and because it’s not easy recruiting doctors to work in crowded facilities filled with violent offenders. California’s prison system—the nation’s largest, with 161,000 inmates—is operating at 175 percent capacity. A federal judge took over the prison health-care system in 2005 after inmates filed class actions alleging that inadequate care amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. To improve conditions, the court ordered the state to hire more staff and attract better doctors by increasing their compensation. Before the pay hikes, the prison system was “basically employing as doctors anybody who had a license and a pulse,” says Clark Kelso, the court-appointed receiver in charge of California’s prison health care.

Today a prison doctor in California can earn $248,172 a year before overtime or extra-duty compensation. A chief physician can make as much as $265,648 plus extra pay. Powerful unions in California and the state’s high cost of living also help drive up doctors’ pay. Prison physicians in Texas, the state with the second-largest prison population, aren’t unionized. They can earn up to $220,000 a year.

Even that is substantially more than many of their colleagues make on the outside. The mean annual wage of a physician in the U.S. in 2009 was $180,870, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In California it was $191,650. “The job markets recognize that these are not nice places to work,” says Stuart A. Bussey, president of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, which represents prison health professionals. “These doctors are working … up to 12 hours a day, and with clients that they would never have to work with in private practice. It’s almost like war pay.”

The bottom line: Thanks in part to a strong union, pay for prison doctors in California can top $300,000 a year, the highest in the nation.

Marois is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Sacramento.

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