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California Ships Prisoners Out of State to “Reduce” Its Prison Population

In response to a Supreme Court mandate to reduce its penitentiary population, California is shipping prisoners to private correctional facilities in other states.

Danielle Rigney’s son was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison when he was 19. He spent two years imprisoned in California. Each weekend, family members or friends drove four hours to visit him. “He got to see his sisters growing up; he got to keep up with their lives,” she told Truthout. “We constantly talked about the future.” In addition to weekly visits, Rigney’s son also had a job in the prison and was on the waiting list for college classes and a technical training course.

In July, however, Rigney arrived at the prison only to be told that her son had been transferred to La Palma Correctional Facility, one of two Arizona private prisons owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Now each visit requires round-trip plane tickets and costs Rigney’s family nearly $1,000. Neither his father nor his elderly grandfather, who were able to visit him regularly in California, can make the 15-hour trip. His friends, who also visited him regularly, also cannot afford to visit him.

Rigney is not the only Californian with an incarcerated loved one out of state, but she is one of the handful of family members able to afford to visit. “I’ve visited three times so far,” she said. “There have been, at most, ten other visitors when I’ve been there.” In comparison, she noted that the visiting rooms at the California prisons were full.

As of November 20, 2013, California housed 8,302 of its state prisoners in private prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma. It sends more prisoners out of state than Hawaii, Idaho and Vermont combined.

Why does California use private, out-of-state prisons?

In 2006, to alleviate prison crowding, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an Emergency Proclamation authorizing California to transfer people to private, out-of-state prisons without their consent. By 2011, more than 10,000 California prisoners had been transferred to five private prisons.

That number still left California with an overcrowded state prison system. In 2011, in response to the class-action suit Plata v. Brown, the US Supreme Court ruled that California’s severely crowded prison system prevented it from providing adequate medical and mental health care to prisoners and that the state was in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. It ordered California to decrease its state prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity. In October, the court extended California’s deadline to comply until February 24, 2014.

This year, Brown revealed that the state’s plan to reduce crowding includes sending an additional 4,000 people to private prisons in and out of the state. California also will keep nearly 9,000 people out-of-state for another three years. In July 2013, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) signed a three-year contract renewal with CCA, making 8,988 beds available in its prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma.

In September, however, a three-judge federal court ordered the Prison Law Office, which represents California prisoners in Plata, and the CDCR, participate in meet-and-confer discussions. These discussions are supposed to include:

  • Reduced sentences (and possible release of) those sentenced under Three Strikes.
  • Expediting the process of resentencing juveniles originally sentenced as adults.
  • Paroling the elderly and the medically infirm.
  • Sending non-citizen prisoners to Immigration and Customs Enforcement before the end of their sentences.
  • Any other means to reduce prison crowding, including relocation within the state.

During this time, the court also ordered that California not enter into arrangements to lease additional capacity in out-of-state facilities or otherwise increase the number of people sent to out-of-state prisons. This does not prevent California from utilizing the 8,988 out-of-state prison beds for which it already has contracts. Bonnie Madrid, a prisoner-rights activist and member of advocacy group Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), stated that she has been told by several prisoners that they are slated for transfers to a CCA-run prison in Arizona. According to the CDCR weekly population report, the number of people in out-of-state prisons rose from 8,267 on November 13th, to 8,302 the following week.

Problems with Out-of-State Private Prisons

In 2010, the office of the inspector general issued a report listing concerns about conditions inside these private prisons, including insufficient security procedures, an unapproved use-of-force policy, the discarding of prescribed medications that arrive with a newly transferred prisoner and prolonged placement in segregation. The report made little difference and California continued to send prisoners to private, out-of-state prisons.

In June 2013, Grassroots Leadership, an organization working to end for-profit incarceration, released The Dirty Thirty, a report chronicling CCA’s 30-year history of prisoner abuse, scandals, escapes, lawsuits and employee mistreatment. Although the report did not focus on the CCA prisons currently contracted by CDCR, it noted CCA’s campaign contributions to California lawmakers, including $234,500 in 2007 to 2008 alone and another $100,000 to then-Governor Schwarzenegger’s 2009 “Budget Reform Now” coalition. Six months later, the report notes, CDCR sent an additional 2,336 prisoners to CCA prisons, extending their contract “in a deal worth more than $54 million a year.”

In October 2011, a riot broke out at Oklahoma’s North Fork Correctional Facility, a CCA-run prison utilized by CDCR since 2007. The riot began with a fight in the dining hall then spread to other parts of the prison. Nearly 50 prisoners were injured; 16 required outside hospitalization, and four had to be taken to a nursing home to recover in a safe environment. Inquiries from alarmed family members in California were met with silence. “We had no idea who was injured. California Department of Corrections is notorious for not notifying families of injuries, and we were so worried,” one family member told The Oklahoman. “Until their letters arrived, about ten days later, none of us knew anything at all. The prison staff was not helpful in any way at all. We posted on Prison Talk desperately trying to get news.”

The following year, The Oklahoman reported that all people incarcerated in North Fork would be sent back to California by the end of 2012. However, CDCR has continued to house its state prisoners in North Fork (2,296 as of November 20, 2013). In addition, four of the men injured during the 2011 riot have filed Bolton v. Figueroa, a lawsuit against the CCA claiming that poor staff training and understaffing led to the “severe and permanent physical and mental injuries they suffered as a result.”

In an email, CDCR deputy press secretary Terry Thornton stated that, while CDCR had a plan that called for an end to utilizing out-of-state prisons by June 2016, “that plan is now in limbo due to the prison-crowding case. CDCR would prefer to not house any of its inmates out of state.” Thornton declined to comment on the lawsuit against CCA, noting that CDCR is not party to the litigation.

Rebekah Evenson, staff attorney for Prison Law Office, called the use of out-of-state prisons a short-sighted, unsustainable response to the court order. In a telephone interview, she pointed out that transferring prisoners out of state further disrupts ties to family and community. “People are less likely to commit [new] crimes when they have contact with their family and community. But it’s extremely hard to keep these connections alive when people are sent to Oklahoma, Mississippi and Arizona.”

Expanding In-State Capacity

California also is expanding the number of in-state prison beds by adding beds to existing state prisons as well as by contracting with in-state private prisons. Under SB1022, $810 million has been allocated for 3,000 in-fill beds, or beds to be added to an existing state prison. SB1022 also includes $500 million for jail expansion, including new construction. Under realignment, people convicted of certain nonviolent, nonserious, nonsex crimes serve their sentences in county jails rather than state prisons. They are not counted as part of California’s state prison population. Forty-two of California’s 58 counties have plans to build new jails. Thirty-six of these counties are applying for SB1022 funds to build new jails, including women’s jails or jails with expanded units for women. People held in jails rather than state prisons are not eligible for release under programs such as California’s Alternative Custody Program, which allows mothers convicted of certain nonviolent, nonserious, nonsex crimes to serve their sentences in the community.

So What’s Next?

Neither CDCR nor the Prison Law Office was willing to comment about the discussions. However, Rebekah Evenson came out strongly against California’s push to expand its prison capacity rather than seriously considering ways to reduce prison crowding. “California has ever-lengthening sentences,” she noted. “Expanding prison capacity doesn’t address this. Keep in mind, it’s not just building, but also the cost of running these prisons. The only way for California to get a handle on its ever-growing population is to take a hard look at who’s in prison and who could safely program in the community. That means looking at sentence lengths, good-time credits, etc., but the political reality in our state is that politicians aren’t making the hard choices that would ultimately benefit California financially and safely. They just keep heaping on more Tough-on-Crime policies.”

CURB member Craig Gilmore agrees. “It is worth noting that in filings with the court, Brown wrote that his new schemes would delay the return of out-of-state prisoners to California custody by a couple of years while offering no suggestion that he was/is pursuing sentencing or further parole reforms that would lower the number of people in state (or state-contracted) custody. If Brown is serious about eliminating out-of-state custody by 2016, but not pursuing policies to reduce the prison population by at least 8,300 (the current number held out of state), is there a solution other than building another 8,300 beds?” He challenges the notion that the choice lies between utilizing private prisons or building additional state prisons. “In California, it is clear that the idea that the limits to our options are public prisons or private prisons is a lie and a distraction. To what sorts of problems would the ‘solution’ be an expansion of a system that maintains the horrors of the SHU or the involuntary sterilizations of at least 143 women under prison ‘health care’ “?

Rigney spoke with her son two days after Thanksgiving. He said that the people incarcerated at La Palma have been told that prisoners who arrived between July and October 2013 will be transferred to North Forks Correctional Facility in Oklahoma. “They’ve heard that they’re getting ready for a new shipment of people, so they have to make room for them,” she told Truthout.

Rigney is not the only person who has heard such reports. CURB member Bonnie Madrid also has been told by Californians incarcerated in Arizona that there are plans to move them farther away. According to her sources, three buses of people already have been moved from Arizona to the CCA-run Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi. (From November 13 to November 20, the number of people incarcerated in Arizona dropped by 72, while the number of people in Mississippi rose by 106.)

Meanwhile, Rigney has been speaking out about the impact of out-of-state transfers. In November, she attended a hearing called by the Select Committee on Justice Reinvestment and, for the first time, spoke publicly about her son’s incarceration and the impact of his out-of-state placement on their family. She has been speaking out ever since. “I am trying to keep him from serving a life sentence, which is what [his six-year sentence] will be if he can’t function on the outside,” she told Truthout. “I want him to be able to serve his time, get out and be free to live the rest of his life, having put all of this behind him. He’ll only be able to accomplish this with the continued support of his family – while he is incarcerated and after. We won’t be free again until he is home.”

Rigney recalled the conversation she had with her son about her involvement in advocacy. “He said, ‘There are so many people here who don’t get visits and are suffering. They got visits regularly while they were in California, but here they tell their families not to incur the hardship. But they miss them,'” she recalled. “He said, ‘Whatever you can do, do it. I want you to do this not only for me, but I want you to do this for everyone.'”

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