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California Plans to End Out-of-State Prisoner Transfers

by David M. Reutter

On November 8, 2010, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) issued a press release announcing that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) intended to award a new contract to the company, “to manage up to 3,256 offenders at CCA’s Crowley County Correctional Facility in Olney Springs, Colorado and CCA’s Prairie Correctional Facility in Minnesota.”

At the time, the announcement seemed like a safe bet. CCA already contracted with the CDCR to house around 10,000 prisoners in out-of-state facilities, stemming from an October 2006 state of emergency declared by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger – a proclamation that remains in effect.

Further, in August 2009, as a result of the Plata v. Brown litigation, a federal three-judge panel ordered California to reduce its prison population by up to 44,000 prisoners within two years. [See: PLN, Sept. 2009, p.36]. One potential option for CDCR officials was to transfer even more prisoners out-of-state, to reduce overcrowding in California’s in-state prisons.

But then a funny thing happened. Not only did the CDCR not fill CCA’s Crowley County and Prairie Correctional Facilities with thousands of prisoners, but California has since announced plans to phase out its out-of-state prison contracts and bring its prisoners home.

On May 23, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the three-judge panel’s order in Plata, requiring California to reduce its prison population by tens of thousands of prisoners. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.1]. Consequently, the state embarked on an ambitious prison “realignment” initiative to do just that.

One key element of the realignment plan, which went into effect on October 1, 2011, is to house low-level prisoners and parole violators in county jails rather than state prisons.
The plan also includes closing the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, eliminating 6,400 staff positions, cutting most of a $6 billion prison construction project and, notably, reducing the number of prisoners held in out-of-state facilities.

“Currently we have 9,500 inmates in [CCA] prisons in Mississippi and Oklahoma and Arizona at a cost to California taxpayers of over $300 million,” CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate said in April 2012. Under the realignment initiative, all California prisoners held in out-of-state prisons would be returned by 2016.

That hinges, however, on the federal court giving the CDCR some leeway if it doesn’t reduce its in-state prisoner population to 137.5% of capacity by June 2013. The state expects to still be over the cap by that deadline, by several thousand prisoners.

Not all California officials are in favor of reducing the number of prisoners held out-of-state. In an August 2011 report, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) suggested that the CDCR could “[c]hange state law to ... continue to transfer prison inmates involuntarily to out-of-state contract beds at least until the court’s requirements are met.” The LAO noted that “Using out-of-state contract facilities to house California inmates on a long-term basis to meet the state’s institutional space needs raises several policy and legal issues that are worthy of legislative consideration and debate.”

But an April 2012 CDCR report, titled “The future of California corrections: A blueprint to save billions of dollars, end federal court oversight and improve the prison system,” indicated that the state plans to return all out-of-state prisoners within 4 years. “Due to realignment, the implementation of the inmate classification score system, and other infill projects ... all offenders will be returned to California,” the report said. “This plan eliminates the use of all out-of-state contract facilities by 2015-16.”

The CDCR report noted that “Upon full implementation of this plan, the elimination of the out-of-state contract beds will result in a reduction of $318 million General Fund and over 400 positions from the department’s budget.”

According to the report, the out-of-state prisoner population would be reduced to 9,038 by 2012-13; to 4,969 by 2013-14; to 1,864 by 2014-15; and to 531 by 2015-16, with a complete phase out by the end of 2016.

CCA has a significant stake in California, as the state accounted for 13% of the company’s total revenue in 2010. Thus, CCA has courted California lawmakers – mainly through donations to their election campaigns. From 2003 to 2010, CCA officials and the company’s Political Action Committee contributed over half a million dollars to political candidates, incumbents and parties in California; the majority of those funds went to 75 candidates between 2008 and 2010.

Despite such corporate largess, the anticipated CDCR contracts that CCA touted in its November 8, 2010 press release never came to pass. Unable to fill its Prairie Correctional Facility in Minnesota, CCA was forced to keep the prison closed; it had been shuttered in February 2010 after Minnesota and Washington State pulled their prisoners out.

The company had hoped to reopen the 1,600-bed facility by stocking it with California prisoners, but not only did that not happen, it now looks like CCA will lose its existing contracts with the CDCR to house approximately 9,500 out-of-state prisoners. This will have a negative impact on CCA’s revenue but will be a positive step for the thousands of prisoners returned to California, who will be closer to their families.

“The California experience shows that states can save money and maintain public safety by carefully reducing their prison populations instead of paying private for-profit corporations millions of dollars,” said Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office.

Sources: Minnesota Independent, CCA press release, Sacramento Bee,,

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