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RENÉE MONTAGNE, host:

A judge here in California has struck down a plan to transfer the state's prison inmates to other states in an effort to relieve severe overcrowding. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says he'll appeal, and adds that if he loses, the ruling may force California prisons to start releasing inmates early.

Here's NPR's Ina Jaffe.

(Soundbite of door closing)

Unidentified Man: Buenos dias, Garcia.

INA JAFFE: Prisoners on a cell block at Chino State Prison east of L.A. let each other know when the guards come and go. The inmates are barely visible behind the bars and metal mesh on each door. But Lieutenant Mark Hargrove says there are more of them in there than there should be.

Lieutenant Mark Hargrove (Spokesman, Chino State Prison): We typically have all these overcrowding beds because the cell environment is meant for one inmate to live in there. But they always place two in them.

JAFFE: The entire men's state prison at Chino is operating at twice its capacity. Day rooms and gyms are crammed with bunks, and it's like that in a lot of California prisons. Statewide, roughly 174,000 prisoners are housed in space designed for 100,000.

That's why Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency and decided to transfer prisoners to private correctional facilities in Arizona and Tennessee. But a judge in Sacramento now says that's not legal. James Tilton, head of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, called the ruling disappointing.

Mr. JAMES TILTON (Head of Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation): We were counting on the ability to transfer inmates out of the state to provide temporary relief to the severely overcrowded prison situation. And we're concerned about making sure that we don't get a situation were we have to release dangerous criminals to the streets of California.

Mr. LANCE CORCORAN (Spokesman, California Correctional Peace Officers Association): Sending 5,000 guys out of state - that was a drop in the bucket.

JAFFE: Says Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association - the prison guard's union. They filed a lawsuit claiming that the California constitution bars the state from bypassing civil service employees, and that Schwarzenegger's declaring a state of emergency doesn't change that.

Superior Court Judge Gail Ohanesian agreed. In fact, she added that the governor didn't have the right to call the state of emergency in the first place. Lance Corcoran says the out-of-state transfers wouldn't have fixed the problem, anyway.

Mr. CORCORAN: Whether we're shipping them out of state or leaving them here, I got to tell you, we have to provide some opportunities for offenders to make changes in their lives.

JAFFE: Which everyone acknowledges 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's making progress in dealing with the overcrowding, threatening a court takeover of the state prisons of there is no improvement.

Professor ROBERT WEISBERG (Law, Stanford University): They have the power to do it.

JAFFE: Says Robert Weisberg, a law professor at Stanford University.

Prof. WEISBERG: They can order the release of prisoners, or they can do it indirectly by just saying, sorry, no more admissions.

JAFFE: Which is why in a written statement, Schwarzenegger called the ruling against the transfer is a threat to public safety. Judge Ohanesian stayed her ruling for 10 days to give the state time to appeal.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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