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Thousands of inmates to be sent out of state

The governor says they will be forcibly moved to for-profit prisons to relieve overcrowding and head off more federal intervention.

February 03, 2007|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced Friday that his administration would forcibly shift thousands of inmates to out-of-state prisons because only a few hundred had volunteered to leave.

The governor's decision escalates the pressure to overhaul a corrections system that officials say will be out of space by summer. A federal judge has given the state until June to relieve the crowding or face a possible cap on admissions.

"The safety of our correctional officers is threatened, we have the highest recidivism rate in the country because there is no room for rehabilitation, and we face the possibility of court-ordered early release of felons," Schwarzenegger said in a statement.

Between 5,000 and 7,000 inmates will be forcibly moved, said Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary James Tilton. The first to go will be inmates scheduled for deportation after they've served their sentences and those who get few visitors.

Tilton said 380 inmates have been voluntarily moved to private prisons in Arizona and Tennessee and 300 additional volunteers are being screened. He said his department is negotiating with prisons elsewhere for the involuntary transfers.

California's prisons contain 172,000 inmates, far more than their intended capacity.

"Right now," said Tilton, "the only tool I have are these out-of-state beds."

Republican lawmakers welcomed Schwarzenegger's decision, calling it overdue.

"We are out of options," said Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange), who chairs a committee examining prison operations. "This is prison, these are prisoners, and they don't get to say where they're going to do their time."

Democratic lawmakers, advocates for inmates and the prison guards' union attacked the transfers as illegal and irresponsible.

"I think it's pathetic policy," said Steve Fama, staff attorney with the Prison Law Office, which represents prisoners. "Because the elected officials don't have the will to figure out how to solve the crisis, we instead export convicts and spread our mess across the land."

He said his nonprofit San Quentin group would sue to block the transfers if asked to do so by an inmate. State law requires an inmate's consent before he or she can be moved out of state, he said.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. sued in October to block the export of inmates, and a Sacramento County Superior Court hearing has been set for Feb. 15. The legislative counsel's office, a nonpartisan agency that advises lawmakers, has concluded that contracting for services with out-of-state prisons violates the state Constitution.

In October, the state signed contracts worth $153 million with privately run prisons in Indiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Arizona to house 2,260 California convicts. Wardens here tried to drum up enthusiasm for the out-of-state lockups with a 20-minute video extolling good food, scenic views and cable television, but they got relatively few takers.

Inmates with medical or mental health problems are not eligible to transfer. Many others were dissuaded from volunteering, officials said, by prison gang leaders and rumors that a court-ordered prison cap could force the early release of thousands of convicts.

Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the correctional officers union, questioned the timing of Schwarzenegger's announcement.

"It certainly smacks of playing games to try to bolster their chances in court in two weeks," he said, and warned that the move would generate anxiety among inmates.

The administration is "well aware the inmates do not want to leave California," said Corcoran. "To create this concern in the minds of the inmates is incredibly irresponsible with respect to the safety of these facilities."

Schwarzenegger's statement urged the Legislature to pass his prison reform proposal, which includes $11 billion to expand prisons and jails to house 78,000 more people.

State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who chairs the Senate's prison committee, called the governor's decision "an outrage" and an "abdication of responsibility."

"It is my belief and my contention that this is in violation of our own Constitution," she said. "We are simply fooling ourselves and fooling the taxpayers of California by thinking we're going to prevail."

She urged Schwarzenegger to immediately address the state's parole and sentencing policies, which eventually send roughly 70% of released inmates back behind bars.

"The running of Corrections is an administrative function," said Romero. "The governor or Tilton doesn't need legislation to implement sensible parole policies. We'll do it if they need it, but they can do it today."

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nancy.vogel@latimes.com

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