Sacramento -- Unable to find enough volunteers, California prison officials said Friday they would begin forcing inmates to transfer from the state's jam-packed prisons to private lockups in Mississippi, Arizona and Oklahoma.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and corrections administrators said the move to ship unwilling inmates out of state was necessary to deal with severe overcrowding, but an inmate advocate said the move is illegal and the state's prison guards union warned it could spark violence in already-tense lockups.
"This could be the final straw that leads to a major incident," said Chuck Alexander with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which has already filed a lawsuit to stop the transfers.
With more than 173,000 inmates crammed into prison space built to house about 100,000, Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the prison system in October and announced he would begin sending inmates to privately run prisons in other states. At the time, corrections officials said a preliminary survey of inmates found that 19,000 were interested in volunteering to transfer.
But limitations on who could go -- high-security inmates and those with medical or mental health problems are excluded -- and a rapidly dwindling number of volunteers has stymied the transfers, and the department has sent only 380 willing inmates so far. Corrections sources have said powerful prison gangs have warned their members not to volunteer to leave, and rumors abound behind bars that federal courts may soon order early releases for thousands of inmates.
Inmates have been shown a promotional video shot by the department extolling the virtues of leaving the state, but it has apparently not spurred new interest.
On Friday, Schwarzenegger administration officials said they planned to begin selecting inmates to ship out soon, and transfers will occur as soon as possible.
The state prison system "will begin to move inmates involuntarily so that they are no longer sleeping in gymnasiums, dayrooms and other inappropriate areas of the prisons and to delay the possibility of running out of beds for new inmates, which would create a public safety problem in our communities," corrections secretary Jim Tilton said.
The first group of potential transfers will be about 1,900 inmates who are not U.S. citizens and who will face deportation hearings once they are released, said Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The department has signed contracts with two private prison companies - -- GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America -- and expects to spend $23.5 million sending inmates out of state in the current and next fiscal year. Sessa said the companies have space in facilities in Mississippi, Arizona and Oklahoma.
The state hopes to send as many as 5,000 inmates to other lockups.
The involuntary transfer won't happen without a legal fight, however.
Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, said he would likely sue Schwarzenegger to prevent the transfers. And a hearing is set for Feb. 16 in state Superior Court in Sacramento regarding a lawsuit already filed by the prison guards union.
State law prohibits sending inmates out of state against their will. In declaring a state of emergency, Schwarzenegger waived that law in anticipation that he would force prisoners to serve their time outside of California.
Specter argued that Schwarzenegger shouldn't be allowed to simply ignore laws by declaring emergencies.
"I don't think the intent of the Emergency Services Act was to give the governor carte blanche to pick and choose which laws he wants to obey," he said.
The union, which has traditionally opposed attempts by the state to expand the use of private prisons, sued late last year and the judge in the case indicated she might side with them.
While denying a temporary restraining order the union requested, Judge Gail Ohanesian indicated that the governor may be overstepping his authority.
The union also has argued that the state is not allowed to contract with private entities for services that the government already performs. Ohanesian wrote in an order that it was "reasonably likely" that the union would win its case.
Republican lawmakers expressed support for the governor's move.
"By transferring some prisoners to other prisons, the governor has addressed the problem in the short term while ensuring criminals stay behind bars," said Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman, R-Irvine.
But another senator was not supportive.
"The governor and Secretary Tilton have run a white flag up the pole and signaled to the whole nation that we can't solve our corrections problem," said state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who has argued that the governor and lawmakers should focus on parole and sentencing reforms that could slow the growth of the prison population.
Prison officials say they have exact protocols for how they remove prisoners from cells, and they move uncooperative inmates to different prisons all the time. They believe they can ship inmates out safely.
But Alexander, the union official, noted that prison gangs had already been intimidating people into not cooperating with the voluntary transfers. He said the union was concerned that forced transfers could lead to a riot.
"There's a difference between moving someone from Corcoran to Pelican Bay and moving them to Tennessee," Alexander said. "This will lead to staff injuries, inmate injuries, and maybe something a whole lot worse."
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