Ruling Complicates California Prison Problems

The entire men's state prison at Chino, Calif. is operating at twice its capacity. Day rooms and gyms are crammed with bunks. Conditions are similar at many California prisons.

But a judge in Sacramento has ruled against a plan to relieve overcrowding by sending prisoners to facilities in other states. The ruling raised the possibility that prisoners may be released early to ease overcrowding.

Statewide, roughly 174,000 prisoners are housed in space designed for 100,000. So Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency, hoping to transfer prisoners to private correctional facilities in Arizona and Tennessee.

Tuesay, Superior Court Judge Gail Ohanesian said no.

James Tilton, head of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, called the ruling disappointing.

"We were counting on the ability to transfer inmates out of state to provide relief to the overcrowded prison situation," Tilton said. "And we're making sure we don't get a situation where we have to release dangerous criminals to the state of California."

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association — a union representing prison guards — filed the lawsuit that blocked the transfer.

The union asserted that Schwarzenegger's action improperly bypassed consultations with civil service employees.

Ohanesian agreed with them, adding that the governor didn't have the right to call the state of emergency in the first place.

Union spokesman Lance Corcoran said the proposed transfers wouldn't have fixed the problem anyway, calling the 5,000 people Schwarzenegger envisioned sending away "a drop in the bucket."

"Whether we're shipping them out of state or leaving them here, we've got to make opportunities for them to make some changes in their lives," Corcoran said.

Everyone acknowledges rehabilitation of prisoners is close to impossible if every spare room is being used as a dormitory. A federal judge has given the state until June to show it is making progress in dealing with the overcrowding. There's a possibility of a court takeover of state prisons if there's no improvement.

There's also the question of how overcrowding will ultimately be addressed.

Stanford University Law Professor Robert Weisberg said the court "can order the release of prisoners, or they can do it indirectly by saying, 'Sorry, no more admissions.'"

In a written statement, Schwarzenegger called the ruling against the transfers a threat to public safety.

Ohanesian stayed her ruling for 10 days, to give the state time to appeal.

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