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June 5, 2008 -- San Francisco Chronicle (CA)

Ruling Favors Governor On Prison Transfers

By Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was within his rights to declare a state of emergency at California's overcrowded prisons in 2006 and begin transferring inmates out of state, an appeals court ruled Wednesday over the objections of the prison guards union.

The ruling by the state Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento overturned a judge's decision and was welcomed by Schwarzenegger, who is separately defending the state against lawsuits by inmates seeking to reduce the overall prison population and improve the prisons' health care system. A federal judge has transferred control of prison health care in California to a court-appointed manager after ruling that the system violated constitutional standards.

There are nearly 160,000 inmates in the 33 state prisons, which were designed to hold about 83,000. The state is planning construction that will expand the capacity of state prisons and county jails by 53,000.

A referee appointed by a federal court panel has proposed measures to reduce the prison population by 27,000 over four years, to 133,000. The measures would include alternatives to prison for some parole violators and felons facing short sentences.

Wednesday's ruling "comes at a critical juncture in our prison reform efforts," Schwarzenegger said in a statement. "I am pleased that their decision allows out-of-state transfers to continue while our comprehensive reforms to reduce overcrowding are fully implemented."

Laurie Hepler, a lawyer for the prison guards' union and another prison employee union that challenged the inmate transfers, said her clients disagreed with the ruling and would appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Schwarzenegger issued the order in October 2006 after a special legislative session on prison overcrowding fizzled, with Democrats seeking changes in sentencing laws and Republicans calling for prison expansion. As the inmate population continued to climb, 16,000 prisoners occupied bunks in prison gyms and other temporary quarters.

Schwarzenegger has said as many as 8,000 inmates could be shipped out of state. So far, nearly 3,900 prisoners have been transferred to out-of-state prisons run by private companies under contracts with California.

The transfers have continued despite a ruling in April 2007 by a Sacramento County judge that Schwarzenegger had acted illegally. Superior Court Judge Gail Ohanesian agreed with the unions that state law allows a governor to issue an emergency order only when local officials need state help in responding to a disaster, and that the use of private prison employees violated civil service laws.

The appeals court had put Ohanesian's ruling on hold while the state appealed. In its ruling Wednesday, the court said the governor can issue orders to respond to emergencies in state institutions that may endanger residents.

In this case, the court said, the lack of space in state prisons was causing overcrowding in local jails, forcing counties to release some inmates who might commit more crimes. Overcrowding also increased the risk of diseases that could spread outside the prisons and had led to local water pollution from sewage spills caused by overtaxed prison wastewater systems, the court said.

The court also said California's civil service rules allow the state to employ private contractors when public employees are not available to meet urgent needs. The planned expansion of state prisons will take years to complete, and the prison system will need five years to eliminate staffing shortages, the court said.

"California cannot build or retrofit the prisons needed overnight, no matter how much money it invests to solve the problem," Presiding Justice Arthur Scotland said in the 3-0 ruling. The only available lockups are in other states and are staffed by private employees, he said.

The ruling can be read online at:

E-mail Bob Egelko at

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