By Scott Detrow
Facing a looming deadline to move about 8,000 inmates out of California’s prison system, Gov. Jerry Brown is once again asking federal judges for an extension. In a request filed Monday, the administration asked the panel to move the deadline from Dec. 31 to the end of 2016.
The extra time would allow California to implement a plan authorized by SB 105, which passed the Legislature last week with near-unanimous support. The state would spend hundreds of millions of dollars on recidivism reduction, job training and other programs designed to keep people out of jail. If the judges reject the request, the state would move forward with a 3-year, $1.1 billion plan moving thousands of inmates to privately run prisons in other states.
But California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation isn’t waiting around for the judge’s response. As Brown and legislative leaders focus attention on their rehabilitation and treatment-centered approach, the department is already laying the groundwork for relocating prisoners. Corrections committees are already screening and processing inmates, looking for possible out-of-state transfer candidates. The actual transfers will likely begin in about two weeks.
That’s leading to panicked phone calls like the one Monay Cherry received from her fiancé, Maurice Vale. “He doesn’t want to go,” she said, recalling the tense conversation. “He was really distracted. And I had to tell him to calm down and go read his Bible.”
“The Prisoners Are Terrified”
Vale is an inmate at Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, a vocation-focused prison in San Joaquin County. Cherry said Vale was called in Monday afternoon, along with about 30 other prisoners, and told he’s being processed for an out-of-state transfer. That worries her, she said, because it’s hard enough to visit a prison two hours away. “So if he was to go out of state, I probably wouldn’t be able to make it. And if I did make it, I don’t even know what the criteria is for me to be OK’d (to visit).”
Cherry is one of several concerned family members who have contacted the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office since screening began. Rebekah Evanson is an attorney with the nonprofit public interest law firm, which has played a major role in the case at the heart of the federal population order. “I can tell you the prisoners are terrified and their families are very worried,” Evanson said.
Evanson said moving prisoners out of state is too costly, and bad policy. Governor Brown doesn’t like it either, but argued California has no other choice – unless the judges give the state another extension.
Of course, earlier this year the judges blasted the governor for “repeated failure” to reach the court-mandated population goal, and pointed out the state has had four years to comply, and has already received one extension.
Transfers Begin In Two Weeks
The state has asked federal judges to respond to the request for an extension by the end of September. Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard says his department can’t just sit around and wait for the ruling.
“We’re preparing if we have to move people out of state,” he said. “Everybody’s moving ahead full speed as if we’ll have to do that. We’re hoping we won’t have to, but if we do we’ll be ready.”
Beard said about 5,500 inmates would likely be moved. The state hasn’t finalized any agreements with private prison companies yet, but facilities in Colorado, Oklahoma, Michigan and Minnesota are all possible locations.
“We would probably begin the first week of October moving inmates, if we don’t hear something one way or the other,” Beard said.
Like Brown, Beard said he prefers the rehabilitation-focused plan that Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg pushed for during negotiations. “It would be good for California because it would actually allow California to have those durable remedies that everybody would like us to have,” he said.
But the department isn’t doing anything yet to implement what Brown, Steinberg and other legislative leaders are referring to as “Plan A.” “There’s really nothing for us to do at this point until we see whether or not we have to go out of state,” he explained.
This doesn’t bother Steinberg. In a statement, spokesman Rhys Williams said, “While California awaits the Federal Court’s response to that plan, it makes sense to begin preparations now for the insurance plan, which is an enormous and expensive operation.”
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Michael Montgomery contributed to this report.