Inmates may be sent out of state
Florida firm interested in taking prisoners is donor to governor.
By Andy Furillo - Bee Capitol Bureau
Published September 9, 2006
THE DEPARTMENT OF Corrections and Rehabilitation is conducting an inmate survey to see how many prisoners might be interested in serving their time out of state -- and a Florida company that has contributed $90,000 over the years to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says it would be happy to accommodate them.
The agency can administratively transfer inmates out of state if they volunteer and if the contracts with out-of-state operators do not exceed a year, according to department spokesman Oscar Hidalgo. Longer-term deals, he said, would require legislative approval.
"If there's a willing inmate and a vendor, we can do this on our own right now," Hidalgo said.
California corrections officials say they have reached an overcrowding crisis, with 16,000 of the system's 172,000-plus inmates sleeping in gyms, dayrooms and classrooms.
Director James Tilton has said the state will run out of bed space by June 2007, at which point it will be forced to stop accepting inmates from counties -- 32 of which are already suffering severe overcrowding problems of their own.
Schwarzenegger, in the wake of the Assembly's refusal last week to act on a legislative overcrowding package that had cleared the state Senate, directed corrections officials to "prepare administrative options" to help relieve the prisons' population pressure.
John Dovey, the head of adult operations for the correctional agency, said the survey is intended to gauge how many inmates are open to an out-of-state move. But he said the questionnaires the department began distributing to convicts Tuesday do not amount to a final agreement leading up to a bus trip.
"It wasn't to solicit any particular inmate's commitment to do anything," Dovey said.
One major private prison company, the GEO Group of Boca Raton, Fla., has expressed interest in housing California inmates at its facilities in Michigan, Indiana and Louisiana.
GEO operates four private prisons in California.
It contributed $22,300 to Schwarzenegger on Aug. 25, in the last week of the legislative session. One overcrowding bill would have required inmate approval for out-of-state transfers. In legislative hearings, GEO expressed support for an involuntary transfer plan.
Altogether, GEO has contributed $90,300 to Schwarzenegger going back to 2003.
Rod Blonien, the company's Sacramento lobbyist, said the contributions had nothing to do with pending legislation. He said the Aug. 25 contribution coincided with a Schwarzenegger political fundraising trip to Florida.
"Because the event was in Florida and our worldwide headquarters are in Florida, (GEO executives) went to it," Blonien said. "It didn't have anything to do with legislation pending in California."
Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Margita Thompson said the contribution will play no role in any private prison deal the administration might make.
"The administration is diligently working to meet the state's fiduciary and public safety responsibilities by evaluating every option to address the prison overcrowding crisis," Thompson said, "and the governor always makes decisions based on what's in the best interest of California, and nothing else."
Besides GEO, five other private prison companies have responded to the corrections department's request for information. None has made campaign contributions to the Republican governor.
County jails in 14 states and a women's prison in North Dakota also responded to the state's request. Altogether, there were 39 responses from facilities with 12,632 available beds.
The inmate survey will assess the preferences of prisoners from all custody levels, except those in administrative segregation or security lockups or inmates undergoing medical and mental health treatment, Dovey said. Results of the survey will be available next week.
Gail Brown, an executive member of the Statewide Family Council, which represents inmate relatives, suggested the transfer idea will give prisoners plenty to think about.
"It certainly would keep them away from their families," she said. "But so many of them are worried about what's going on in the system that they may not think it's a bad idea."
Blonien, the GEO lobbyist, predicted inmates will welcome the transfer opportunity.
"You pull a bus up in the next 30 to 60 days and a whole bunch of folks would be willing to jump on it," he said.
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* The Bee's Andy Furillo can be reached at (916) 321-1141 or