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California's Prison-Transfer Plan Angers Critics

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California's Prison-Transfer Plan Angers Critics


California's Prison-Transfer Plan Angers Critics

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Tomorrow the California Prison Guards Union takes the state to court. The guards are trying to stop inmates from being shipped to prisons in other states. Those transfers are part of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to deal with severe overcrowding.

Some prisoners have volunteered to move, but soon the transfers will be involuntary, as NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

Unidentified Guard: One in front of the other, hands behind your back.

INA JAFFE: This room at the men's state prison in Chino is called the gymnasium, but it's packed wall to wall with double bunk beds. The only decoration is a sign that says Caution: no warning shots will be given.

Unidentified Guard: One in front of the other, hands behind your back.

JAFFE: Prisoners are standing single file on the narrow aisle, stripped down to white boxer shorts and shoes. They clasp their orange uniforms behind their backs. This is the drill whenever they go to yard, which is prison speak for outdoor exercise.

Lieutenant MARK HARGROVE (Prison Guard): I've never seen a gymnasium in my career that hasn't been filled with beds, and I've been in the department 20 years.

JAFFE: Lieutenant Mark Hargrove says the gyms and day rooms became dorms when the prisons ran out of space in the cells.

Lieutenant HARGROVE: I mean, we put two in a cell. You can't put anymore than that and most of the cells were designed for one inmate.

JAFFE: There are about 175,000 prisoners behind bars in California and facilities built to house 100,000. And if the overcrowding situation isn't addressed, the federal court could start proceedings to take over the prison system as early as June.

Mr. JAMES TILTON (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation): There's a real risk of that happening.

JAFFE: James Tilton is the secretary of California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Transferring a few thousand prisoners to private correctional facilities in other states, he says, could help California avoid the court takeover.

Mr. TILTON: The priority here is to reduce the overcrowding so we can get safer environments, provide programs back in place and put off the situation where we actually run out of beds.

JAFFE: Which could happen as soon as this summer, according to Tilton, if 5,000 to 7,000 prisoners aren't transferred out of state. But so far, just around 350 have volunteered.

(Soundbite of music)

JAFFE: So the state made a DVD, a sales pitch full of happy testimonials from prisoners at the privately-run west Tennessee detention facility.

Unidentified Inmate #1: Cells are bigger. It's a lot cleaner.

Unidentified Inmate #2: We've got a microwave here. We could have the TV.

JAFFE: The state will rank the involuntary transfers, going first with the immigrants who face deportation after completing their sentences, as well as inmates who don't get many visitors.

Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association - the prison guards' union - says it doesn't matter what the criteria are. All transfers, voluntary or otherwise, violate the state constitution.

Mr. LANCE CORCORAN (California Correctional Peace Officers Association): It basically says that when governmental work is to be done, it will be done by public employees. And so we believe that we can perform the duties that have now been outsourced to private corporations.

JAFFE: That case goes before a judge tomorrow, and there could be another case in the near future specifically challenging the involuntary transfers.

Mr. DON SPECTER (Prison Law Office): It's both a bad idea and it's illegal.

JAFFE: Says Don Specter, the director of the Prison Law Office.

Mr. SPECTER: There's a state law requiring that prisoners have to give their consent before they can be transferred out of state, and it doesn't help the overcrowding situation because more prisoners are just going to come in to fill the beds that are vacated.

JAFFE: A study by a government watch dog group blamed the current prison crisis on the longstanding lack of political will to deal with the issue. State Senator Gloria Romero, a Democrat and head of the Public Safety Committee agrees.

Senator GLORIA ROMERO (Democrat, California): Many alleged officials do fear tackling prison issues for fear of the labeling, being called soft on crime.

JAFFE: In fact, elected officials are starting to put out lots of proposals for fixing the prisons, from building more of them to changing parole and sentencing laws. Republicans like some ideas, Democrats like others. Governor Schwarzenegger typically wants to do a bit of everything.

But the only thing that can be done instantly is to move a few thousand prisoners out of California altogether, as long as a court doesn't say no.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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