California seeks to move inmates to private prisons

August 6, 2013 2:29:48 PM PDT
California will seek to move thousands of inmates to private prisons in a last-ditch attempt to avoid releasing violent offenders to ease prison crowding, the state corrections chief said Monday.

The state will take the step after the U.S. Supreme Court last week refused to delay a lower court order requiring California to free nearly 10,000 inmates by year's end, Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard told The Associated Press.

Beard said the state will soon ask a lower federal court to permit the state to house at least 4,000 inmates in privately operated cells in California and other states.

There are enough additional beds available to avoid most if not all of the early releases that would otherwise occur, he said. The beds are in two community correctional facilities within California, in private prisons in other states, and in several county jails with excess capacity, he said.

The state already houses nearly 9,000 inmates in private prisons in other states.

Although it's expensive to do, Beard says it's a better option than freeing inmates before they complete their full prison terms.

California already reduced its prison population by more than 46,000 inmates since 2006, the majority because of a 2-year-old state law that sentences lower level offenders to county jails instead of state prisons.

"We don't have an awful lot of these low risk, less serious people left in our system and so we're very concerned about who we might have to release if we go that way," Beard said in a telephone interview.

State officials don't like paying to keep offenders in out-of-state prisons where they are far from home, yet, "I'd prefer to do more of that than to early release inmates," he said.

Beard said the lower court would have to give its permission for the state to add more prison beds as an alternative to other approved options that would lead to early releases. The alternatives include expanding good-time credits leading to early release for more than 4,000 inmates and granting early parole to 400 sick and elderly inmates.

A federal official who controls prison medical care has given corrections officials the files of about 30 women who could be released on medical parole. They are among 900 inmates statewide who have been preliminarily identified as eligible for medical parole, but state officials said they are awaiting a final court order expanding an existing 2011 law that limits such releases to inmates who were permanently incapacitated while in prison, meaning they require 24-hour care and cannot perform activities of basic daily living.

The state has said it could take those steps along with other measures, including expanding firefighting camps, opening a new health care facility in Stockton, and slowing the return of inmates housed in other states. The options together would be more than enough to meet the courts' requirement that the state reduce the prison population to about 110,000 inmates, yet each also has financial or public safety complications.

The court would have to waive state law and the state constitution to permit the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to spend money to house the inmates in private facilities without an appropriation from the Legislature, Beard said.

He said the administration is likely to ask lawmakers to approve spending the money.

Legislative leaders have said they are reluctant to do so, but Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, told reporters Monday that lawmakers plan to work with Gov. Jerry Brown on the state's response. Leaders of both political parties and in both the Assembly and Senate must discuss with the Democratic governor "what all is possible and what there is the will to get done," Perez said.

The early release order comes as the state also is in the process of complying with another federal court mandate to move about 2,600 of the 8,100 inmates housed at Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons because they are particularly vulnerable to a naturally occurring but potentially fatal illness known as valley fever. Meanwhile, 415 inmates in seven prisons were continuing a hunger strike to protest the state's policy of isolating gang leaders. Of those, 244 of the inmates have not eaten since July 8.

Beard met Friday with advocates for the hunger strikers but said he is not giving in to their demands.

The state already had announced policy changes that make it harder to send inmates to the isolation units at Pelican Bay and other prisons, and easier for them to work themselves out of the units, he said. The state will make routine adjustments to those policies in coming months, he said, some of which might find favor with inmates and some which they might not like.

"We're doing what we think needs to be done, not in response to their requests," he said.


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