If you haven't yet read the thoughtful and thorough investigation of California prison work pay conducted by the Register's Sacramento reporter Brian Joseph, it's must reading (Desert Dispatch readers can find the story online at ocregister.com) for those trying to understand how and why the state is in the budget mess it is in.


You may be surprised at the high salaries paid relative to those of other state departments. You likely will be chagrined that solutions are neither quick nor easy, but there are places to start for the system, which oversees 162,000 inmates and 108,000 parolees.


Among the most troubling discoveries of the 2009 data:


The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had the most employees and spent more on employee compensation than any of the other 150 state departments outlined in data from the state Controller's Office.


The department employed more than 69,000 people paying out more than $4.78 billion; it had 10,000 workers making more than $100,000 a year.


The department had the most employees of any state department being paid more than $100,000, $200,000, $300,000, $400,000 and $500,000.


The highest-paid Corrections employee, a dentist, was paid $621,970, with more than half that amount, $316,736, coming from accrued leave, paid in lump sum when he left the department.


Corrections has taken an increasingly bigger bite out of the state budget. In fiscal year 1976-77, for example, 3.32 percent of the state's general fund (which back then was $344.3 million) went to Corrections. This year, 10.32 percent ($8.9 billion) is budgeted for prisons while the shares for higher education, tax relief and natural resources all have decreased. The only area to increase its share of the budget more than Corrections is K-12 education.


The blame for the situation is laid at the feet of a strong union, costs associated with a federal receivership and sentencing laws assembled piecemeal over time. Prison officials say it's difficult to attract skilled personnel for facilities that must be staffed 24 hours a day.


It is long past time to re-evaluate salaries, pensions and practices in the prison system, and consider fixes, as the story suggests, such as releasing inmates no longer a threat, exploring Texas-style approaches, and housing inmates suffering some similar health issues in a single facility.