Prisoners sent to Mississippi

The transfer of foreign inmates to the private facility is part of a plan to relieve overcrowding.
By Andy Furillo - Bee Capitol Bureau

Published 12:00 am PDT Saturday, August 18, 2007
California corrections officials have begun sending hundreds of foreign national inmates against their will to a private prison in Mississippi as part of a stepped-up, out-of-state transfer plan.

The first two flights of prisoners to the Tallahatchie County Detention Facility in Tutwiler, Miss., have taken place without incident, officials said, in spite of fears expressed by the California correctional officers union that the forced transfers would be met with inmate violence.

"Many of the inmates had never been on a plane before in their lives," said Scott Kernan, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's chief deputy secretary for adult operations. "They were a little scared. But once they got on the flight, they were fine."

Some 200 foreign national inmates, mostly from Mexico, were shipped to the Mississippi prison on flights July 20 and July 27, a state prison spokesman said. A total of 597 inmates -- including 397 volunteers -- have now been sent to private prisons in Mississippi, Arizona and Tennessee.

Kernan said the state hopes to move 5,000 prisoners to out-of-state institutions by June 30 to help relieve overcrowding in California. "We have a very aggressive schedule that will include trips of approximately 120 inmates every couple of weeks," Kernan said.

Some 173,000 inmates in the state are being housed in space designed for about half that many, with federal judges now considering a motion to place a population cap on the system that could result in early releases for tens of thousands of prisoners.

Francisco Estrada, a lobbyist for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the transfers of the foreign nationals raise a host of potentially problematic legal issues for the corrections agency.

If the inmates are legal residents, the transfers figure to separate them from their families and immigration attorneys, and "that's wrong," Estrada said. They also create a prospect for racial targeting on the part of prison officials.

"We need to be very careful," Estrada said, adding that he will be discussing the issue with Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund attorneys.

Foreign nationals being transferred under the out-of-state program are all subject to holds "or potential holds" placed on them by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said corrections spokesman Bill Sessa. They include both legal and illegal residents, he said.

No inmates "with demonstrated family ties" are being transferred for now, Sessa said. Nor are any being moved "if they're in the middle of legal proceedings," including immigration matters, Sessa said.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association in February won a ruling in Sacramento Superior Court stopping the transfer program. The union claimed the program violated state civil service protections guaranteed under the California Constitution. The ruling has since been stayed pending an appeal by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

CCPOA leaders also voiced opposition to the transfers during the debate over the recently enacted $7.9 billion prison construction plan, which included legislative approval for moving 8,000 inmates out of state. Union officials said the involuntary transfers would put officers in danger from resisting inmates.

CCPOA spokesman Ryan Sherman said Friday that the union is "very grateful" that no officers have been injured in extracting the prisoners from their cells.

"We're hopeful that will continue as the governor continues to do these unconstitutional transfers," Sherman said.

Sherman characterized the Tallahatchie County prison in Mississippi, operated by the Correctional Corp. of America, as one of "the most troubled" in the country. He based his assessment on newspaper articles detailing assorted disturbances at the prison dating back to 2003.

"Private prisons lower the bar for the entire profession by providing extremely limited training and remarkably poor compensation and benefits," Sherman said. "They're in it to make a buck. Public safety is nowhere on their priority list."

CCA spokeswoman Louise Grant said her company "is extremely proud of the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility" and that private prisons are no more dangerous than those operated by the state.

"We have a strong, trained staff and a strong, experienced management," Grant said. "The facility itself is state of the art, and we meet all the standards the CDCR expects us to. If our customers did not trust the quality of our services, they would cancel our contracts. No customer has canceled any of their contracts with us due to performance issues."

State corrections officials signed a three-year, $22.9 million contract last year with CCA, which also operates the private prisons housing the California prisoners in Tennessee and Arizona. The company is charging the state $63 per inmate per day, compared with the $90 average cost per inmate in California. The contract includes transportation costs.

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