Sacremento -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday declared a state of emergency in California's severely overcrowded prisons, a move his aides said would allow the transfer of inmates to other states without their consent.
Corrections Secretary James Tilton said Wednesday that prison crowding was so severe he could not wait. Tilton said it will allow him to skirt the state's cumbersome competitive bidding process, which will make the beds available more quickly. He said officials would begin by transferring volunteers and, if necessary, create more space later through mandatory transfers.
ADVERTISEMENT While overcrowding has long been an issue in the state's lock-ups, it has reached crisis levels this year, with most of California's 33 prisons packed to twice their intended capacity.
Of the 173,000 men and women behind bars, about 17,000 are bunking in areas not designed as living space. In addition to converted gyms, prisoners now sleep in hallways, lounges and in triple-decker bunks. For a time, the chapel at San Quentin housed convicts.
"Our prisons are now beyond maximum capacity and we must act immediately and aggressively to resolve this issue," Schwarzenegger said in a statement.
Tilton said the state is poised to sign three-to-five-year contracts with private prisons in four states � Oklahoma, Indiana, Arizona and Tennessee -- that would provide 2,200 beds. He said he hoped to begin the transfers with 200 male inmates next month and continue transferring another 100 or more weekly after the screening process occurs.
Tilton said a recent survey circulated by authorities in the prisons suggested that as many as 19,000 convicts were interested in a voluntary transfer, though he cautioned that the number may not be solid.
Lawyers for inmates said that while they support voluntary transfers, they would challenge any involuntary moves, which they called a violation of state law that requires a convict's consent.
At the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit firm that has successfully sued the state on inmate health care and other issues, director Donald Specter called the emergency declaration ''political theater" by a governor running for reelection.
''This is an idiotic thing to be spending time on, because the number of beds they will be able to find in other states will amount to a grain of sand on a beach," Specter said. ''In terms of serious reform, there is nothing about this that makes sense."
Democrats also criticized the Republican governor, saying he had sat on his hands despite repeated warnings about the crisis. Last fall, for instance, the chief of adult prisons said in a memo that a ''population crisis" was creating ''an imminent and substantial threat to the public safety."
''If he had listened to his own people back then, we wouldn't be in this crisis," said Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), chairman of the Assembly Public Safety Committee.
Leno said the Schwarzenegger Administration could have alleviated the crowding through parole reform, specifically, by allowing thousands of low-level parole violators face sanctions in the community rather than returning them to prison.
Corrections officials said they have been working on short-term and long-term solutions to the crowding crisis, but noted that their plans were rejected by lawmakers during the recent special session Schwarzenegger called on prisons.
That session ended in August with legislators rejecting a $6-billion package of proposals from the governor, including forcible transfers out of state of 5,000 illegal immigrant felons facing deportation, and the use of private facilities in California to house 4,000 low-security inmates.
Schwarzenegger also proposed moving 4,500 non-violent female inmates � about 40% of the total of incarcerated women � to regional correctional centers.