Calif. bids inmates to seek other confines

Despite overcrowding, many reject transfers to out-of-state prisons

January 28, 2007|By Jenifer Warren | Jenifer Warren,Los Angeles Times

Sacramento, calif. -- Tasty meals. A room with a view. Cable TV.

In one of the more unusual marketing campaigns undertaken by state government, California prison officials are asking inmates to bid adieu to their cellmates and transfer to lockups elsewhere in the country. As part of the recruitment drive, wardens are screening a film extolling the virtues of out-of-state prisons - and reminding convicts of the violent, overcrowded, racially charged conditions they face in California.

"You get 79 channels here - ESPN!" one tattooed California felon, now housed in Tennessee, says in the video.

"They talk to us like humans," promises another, "not like animals."

The campaign reflects the desperation corrections officials face as they grapple with a ballooning prison population and no easy fix. Leaders say they will run out of room for new inmates by summer, and a federal judge has ordered the overcrowding eased by June.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has unveiled a sweeping $11.9-billion prison building and reform plan. But its prospects are uncertain in the legislature, and creating bed space - whether through the construction of new cells or policy changes that slow the incoming tide of convicts - cannot be accomplished overnight.

The governor declared a state of emergency in October and announced plans to ship some inmates out of state.

The transfers have been voluntary. But officials say mandatory moves are increasingly likely because so few convicts are willing to go. In an initial survey, more than 19,000 felons said they might like to be transferred. But officials say they have only 600 volunteers on their list, including 365 who have been shipped to Arizona and Tennessee. Some convicts have been disqualified for transfer because of medical or mental health problems or because they require a high level of security not offered in the out-of-state facilities that have agreed to take California prisoners.

But two other factors may be deflating interest, officials say. Prison gangs, wary of losing troops and control behind bars, have reportedly warned inmates not to sign up.

And false but persistent rumors of possible early releases in California may be deterring volunteers. Because of a pending lawsuit seeking to limit the inmate population, many convicts apparently believe that a judge may allow some to go free before the end of their terms - an opportunity they would miss if they were housed in another state.

"We know there are some intangible factors out there, like the gang allegiances, that are affecting our numbers," said Bill Sessa, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "We're hoping that over time, those influences will wear down."

Critics of the transfer program said the department was foolish to undertake it, arguing that the number of beds freed by the moves would do little to ease crowding.

"The crowding of 173,000 inmates into space for about 100,000 is not solved by moving a few thousand to facilities in other states," said Bob Driscoll of Woodland Hills, the father of an inmate.

An executive with the prison guards union, which has sued to block the transfers on grounds that they violate the state Constitution, said the sluggish interest among convicts was predictable.

Lance Corcoran, a lobbyist with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association said many out-of-state facilities operated by private companies have a checkered history, including violence and abuse, and that California convicts might be in for a rude surprise if they transfer.

The 20-minute movie depicts the entire relocation experience, including searches and shackling at the beginning, a charter flight and the arrival at a clean, quiet prison with polished floors.

Most compelling are testimonials from some of the 80 convicts who have arrived at the West Tennessee Detention Facility in Mason, a private lockup run by Corrections Corp. of America.

Footage shows inmates lounging in roomy cells with views, playing basketball and chess, lining up for hot meals and chatting amiably with smiling officers.

Corrections Secretary James Tilton has said he hopes to transfer at least 5,000 inmates. Under contracts the state has signed, incarcerating inmates out of state saves money: $63 a day is spent on each inmate compared with California's $71 a day.

In case more volunteers do not step forward, the governor's emergency proclamation lays the foundation for compulsory moves. In his emergency decree, the governor authorizes suspension of a law requiring an inmate's consent for an out-of-state transfer. He also orders that the first convicts moved against their will be noncitizens facing possible deportation upon completion of their terms.

Jenifer Warren writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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