SACRAMENTO (AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown wants to end a 6-year-old program that has sent thousands of California inmates to private prisons in other states, although he may not get the chance unless he can persuade federal judges to revise an order limiting the number of inmates the state can hold.
The governor's office must submit a plan to the federal court by midnight Monday outlining how California will meet the court's inmate population cap by the end of the year. Continuing the out-of-state contracts is among the easiest ways for the state to comply, but that option is opposed by Brown's administration and by attorneys representing inmates.
The courts imposed the inmate cap to force California to improve medical and mental health care for its prisoners, a decision that has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Brown wants to return the nearly 9,000 inmates to California over the next four years, a step his administration said would save the state roughly $300 million annually.
"Returning these inmates to California will stop the flow of taxpayer dollars to other states," Brown said in his budget plan from last year.
His proposal relies on federal judges allowing the state to keep an additional 6,000 inmates above the court-ordered cap, something the judges have not been willing to do so far.
The administration and the inmate advocates acknowledge that the trade-off for ending the out-of-state contracts could be reduced sentences for some criminals, early releases and new construction at existing state prisons. Those alternatives would be necessary to keep California's inmate population within the federal cap.
Yet, Don Specter and Michael Bien, the lead attorneys representing inmates' welfare, said housing prisoners so far away is bad public policy because it separates them from their families and communities, reducing their chances of success after they are released.
Bien also said the private prison industry lacks the same kind of public scrutiny that a state-run prison system faces.
"They are not responsible to the public, they are not responsible to the Legislature — they are responsible to their shareholders," he said.
California has had contracts with Corrections Corp. of America to house prisons out of state since 2006. As of this year, it was sending roughly 4,600 inmates to Arizona, 2,600 to Mississippi and 1,600 to Oklahoma.
Those contracts have helped the state relieve unsafe, overcrowded conditions "at significant cost savings to California taxpayers while also helping the State defer the cost of constructing new prisons," company spokesman Steven Owen said in an email. The private prisons must comply with the same federal court orders that apply to all California inmates, he said, and operations are overseen by state and federal officials.
The state Department of Finance estimates it is costing $56,000 to house an inmate, on average, in a California state prison for the current fiscal year. That is more than double the $26,000 it costs for a bunk in a private prison in another state.
But state finance and corrections officials say the comparison is misleading because only healthy and less dangerous inmates are sent to other states. California bears the higher costs for inmates who have physical or mental health problems or who are housed in maximum-security prisons, isolation units or on death row.
Both departments said they are unable to calculate what it costs the state to house a healthier, lower-risk inmate similar to those who are sent to private prisons.
The out-of-state price tag also does not include the cost of transporting inmates to and from other states, administering the program or covering inmates' medical costs if they become seriously ill while at the private prison.
It is cheaper to add a limited number of inmates to the state's existing correctional system because the prisons already are built and the staff already in place, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. The analyst's office put the annual cost at less than $10,000 for each additional inmate, less than half the cost of sending the same inmate to a private prison.
The calculation breaks down if so many inmates are returned to California that the state must build new cells or prisons to handle the influx, yet that is what the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is proposing in a long-range plan approved by state lawmakers last year.
That plan calls for converting a juvenile detention center into an adult prison and building new cells at three existing prisons to house a total of more than 5,000 inmates, at a combined cost of nearly $1 billion.
"In that case, bringing back the prisoners becomes more expensive, because we're talking about building new facilities and staffing them," said analyst Drew Soderborg. "Large changes can generally be handled more cost effectively by out-of-state contracts."