The latest deal will ship another 5,800 inmates to private prisons across state lines, bringing the total to more than 15,000. The transfers will begin in May under a contract that runs through June 2013 - nearly halfway through the term of Gov.-elect Jerry Brown.
California has a prison population of about 164,000 people, but its corrections facilities are only equipped to house around 100,000. The state is under court order to reduce the inmate population by 40,000 though state officials are challenging the order, and the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case today.
Critics of moving prisoners to out-of-state facilities say it does little to relieve the underlying problems that have caused crowded conditions and questioned the timing of the new, no-bid contracts with two private companies. One of the companies houses nearly 10,000 California prisoners.
"This is the governor doing what he wants to in the last minutes of his administration," said state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. "It is a way he can, on his watch, knock another 5,000 from the official numbers."
When California first signed contracts to ship prisoners over state lines four years ago, it began with 2,260 inmates at a cost of $51 million annually. Now, it is set to pay the companies $360 million a year to house 15,424 prisoners, and spend more than $636 million annually once administrative costs are factored in.
The prisons remain woefully crowded: There are 8,200 inmates in "nontraditional" beds such as the gymnasium at San Quentin State Prison. Prison officials hope that, with the new agreements and other efforts, the number could drop to zero.
"This has always been viewed as a temporary remedy while we await other fixes, including legislative reform and building additional (prison) capacity," said Scott Kernan, undersecretary for operations at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Consult next governor
Critics of California's private prison deals, however, question the timing of the new contracts and whether the state should be using private lockups at all. Don Specter of the Prison Law Office, which filed the crowding lawsuit against the state, said Brown "should be consulted on this important policy development before any long-term decisions are made."
It was unclear whether the governor-elect weighed in on the new contracts. A spokesman for Brown declined comment.
Kernan, however, said that while the "timing might seem unusual," the state has been in the process of negotiating the new contracts for months.
About half of the new inmates - 2,580 - will go to a Michigan facility owned by GEO Group Inc., which signed a new contract with the state earlier this month. The other half are to go to prisons in Colorado and Minnesota, though the state is still negotiating with the owner of those facilities, Corrections Corp. of America.
The corrections company already houses 9,941 California inmates and is the nation's largest private prison company. Corrections Corp. of America also was the subject of a recent National Public Radio investigation that alleged that it and other prison companies helped draft and pass a controversial Arizona immigration bill approved earlier this year - a law that could increase inmate population numbers and therefore benefit the private prison industry's bottom line. Corrections Corp. of America denies any involvement, saying in a written statement that the company had "absolutely no involvement whatsoever in drafting or writing the legislation."
Still, critics argue that the very practice of making profit-driven companies part of the criminal justice system is alarming.
"If you can get over the civil libertarian issue and morality of putting people in prison for profit ... you end up with a market that needs to be fed, which is pretty scary," said Ken Kopczynski, executive director of the national Private Corrections Working Group, which advocates against the private prison industry.
State lawmakers have also raised questions about safety at the private facilities. According to the Assembly Accountability and Administrative Review Committee, which held a hearing on the out-of-state transfer program in January, California prison officials temporarily stationed a staff member at a Mississippi facility, "due to several incidents there including the death of an asthmatic prisoner in 2007 and an incident in October 2009 that left two correctional officers hospitalized, including one with 22 stab wounds."
Kernan said a person is no longer stationed full time at the prison, but that teams of state employees travel to all of the facilities almost weekly to monitor conditions.
In 2006, Schwarzenegger issued an emergency proclamation stating that immediate action was needed to prevent "death and harm caused by severe overcrowding." By declaring a state emergency, the governor was able to waive a law that prohibits sending inmates out of state without their consent.
The first, three-year contract with Corrections Corp. of America to house about 2,200 inmates was announced just 16 days after the proclamation was signed. At first, state officials said they would only be sending volunteer prisoners over state lines, but within months announced they would begin involuntary out-of-state transfers.
Since then, California has systematically increased the number of inmates incarcerated in private facilities. The state employs 199 people at a cost of $276 million a year to oversee the program.
Lawmakers approved some out-of-state transfers under AB900, a bill passed in 2007 to provide $7.7 billion in prison construction funds to add 53,000 prison and jail beds around the state. The measure also allowed a limited number of out-of-state transfers without an inmate's consent through July 1, 2011.
Since 2007, however, the Legislature has not commented on the program, except in informational oversight hearings and as part of the state budget.
Kernan characterized the program as "cost neutral," and stressed that the ultimate goal is to tackle crowding.
Sen. Leno said it might "look good" to reduce the inmate population, but there are other factors the government should be considering, such as how to decrease the state's 70 percent recidivism rate.
Specter and Leno are also concerned about shipping inmates away from their families and friends.
"One documented way to reduce recidivism is with the presence of a supportive family," Leno said. "Sending prisoners across country is what we shouldn't be doing if we want successful re-entry programs."
Kernan, however, said that even inmates who remain in California are unlikely to be close to the communities where they will eventually be released.