California will run out of prison space next year, official says
By DON THOMPSON, Associated Press Writer
Last Updated 12:32 am PDT Friday, July 21, 2006
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SACRAMENTO (AP) - California will run out of even makeshift prison beds in less than a year unless the state takes action, the state's corrections chief said Thursday, warning also of an increased danger of riots.
California's record-high population of 172,000 inmates is spilling into gymnasiums and day rooms, Acting Corrections Secretary James Tilton told lawmakers at a hearing. The state's adult prisons are designed only to hold about 100,000 and the last 3,000 of an estimated 16,000 makeshift bed spaces will be used up in months, Tilton said, leaving the state in a crisis situation.
"I will be out of beds entirely by June of '07," he told the Assembly Select Committee on Prison Construction and Operations. "We're out looking for every bed we can find."
Tilton said 42 inmates at a Chino prison spent a night last month sleeping on an outdoor basketball court because there were no cells.
His warning comes as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will attempt to persuade lawmakers to ease prison crowding during a special session next month, two months before the governor stands for re-election.
Schwarzenegger has proposed a $3.6 billion plan that calls for building two new prisons and expanding existing prisons, adding 51,000 prison beds over the next 15 years as the prison population reaches a projected 198,000. Inmates who are about to be released would be sent to "re-entry" facilities for job-training, mental health therapy and other services aimed at helping them return to society, and another 5,000 jailed illegal immigrants would be sent to other states.
Schwarzenegger has ruled out changing the state's tough sentencing laws, which critics cite as the underlying cause of the crowding. But he has warned that crowding could one day lead a federal judge to order inmates freed before they complete their sentences.
Tilton told legislators the crowding has led to an unsafe prison system that could suffer riots, mass escapes or hostage-taking that has been seen in other states with similar conditions. Besides crowding, he said there are too few prison guards and programs to keep inmates occupied and prepare them for release.
"There are symptoms out there already," Tilton said. "The conditions are there waiting for that spark."
Chuck Alexander, executive vice president of the 30,000-member California Correctional Peace Officers Association, said the prison system is "on the brink of a catastrophic failure."
Tilton and Alexander had a sympathetic audience for the first legislative hearing since Schwarzenegger proposed his prison plan. The committee is chaired by Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez, D-Norwalk, a member of the guards' union and co-chair of Schwarzenegger's sex offender task force.
Matthew Gray, a lobbyist for Taxpayers for Improving Public Safety and the California Prisoners Union, said lawmakers instead should be dealing with the real cause of prison overcrowding, which he said is California's long prison sentences.
Instead of building more prisons, the state should spend money on new hospitals to improve horrible inmate medical care, as a federal court receiver appointed to improve inmate care concluded last week, Gray said.
Also Thursday, the prison system's inspector general, Matthew Cate, said the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation mismanaged $12 million in taxpayer money in the last six years by failing to control and account for leave time used by prison union leaders.
Union members donate vacation time to be used by their leaders for union business. The donated time compensates the state for days lost when the union leaders aren't working at their state jobs.
The state controller found the guards' union overcharged the state $1.1 million over the five years, but Cate said the department's records are so poor that the loss can't be verified.
John Hagar, a federal court-appointed special master who oversees employee discipline, last week accused the guards' union leaders of failing to report when they took time off for holidays, vacation time and sick leave, costing the state thousands of dollars in extra pay and boosting the lump sums they would receive at retirement for unused vacation.
But Cate blamed the department for failing to require union leaders to account for that time and failing to challenge alleged union violations until last year, four years into the contract that expired July 1.
Tilton has outlined a 10-step plan the department is taking to improve record-keeping.
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