Budget problems and changing priorities in California threaten to derail plans to send thousands of inmates to the GEO Group’s private prison in Baldwin.
Last year California’s overcrowded prison system agreed to pay The GEO Group $60 million a year to house 2,580 inmates at the company’s North Lake Correctional Facility starting in May.
But now California is struggling to close a $15.4 billion deficit and the new Democratic Governor Jerry Brown has signed a bill that would reduce the state prison population by transferring prisoners with short sentences into county jails where they could gradually reintegrate into their communities. The bill, however, won’t take effect until a mechanism for funding the program is established and with budget negotiations stalled in the legislature, it’s unclear how or when that will happen.
“We are in a very volatile situation with the budget and legal authority to send inmate out of state is in question,” California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation Undersecretary Scott Hernan said in an interview Friday.
Hernan said that at this point the dept. is still planning to begin sending 130 inmates a month to Baldwin by plane starting next month, and hopes to be able to continue plans with GEO.
Ryan Sherman is spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officer Association, which represents state corrections officers and opposes plans to ship inmates out of state.
“This is a California state department,” he said. “Should they really be trying to send taxpayer dollars and jobs to another state in the middle of a budget crunch?”
California is also waiting on delivery of an opinion in a U.S. Supreme Court case that could influence how the state needs to deal with overcrowding issues, he said.
This Spring the court is expected to announce it’s opinion in Plata v. Schwarzenegger, a case that examines the legality of a court order that California reduce its prison population in order to address unconstitutional conditions (inadequate medical care) in the corrections system.
If the Supreme Court determines that California must reduce its prison population then outsourcing prisoners might be one way to comply with that mandate, Sherman said, though it would be an expensive way to do it.
No matter the outcome of the ruling, he said, it may not be wise to begin the process of moving prisoners when a decision is imminent.
In Baldwin, training for employees at the prison was delayed last week but the GEO Group refused to give details about the status of plans for the California inmates.
The company has said that the deal with California will lead to 500 jobs at the facility by 2014.
Joe Baumann is correctional officer at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles and secretary for the group Corrections USA.
“I believe there is a very high likelihood that [California inmates] will not go to Michigan,” he said.
“A couple county jails — Orange, LA and Fresno — have sizable units empty for budget reasons,” he said. “They’ve got units that are there mothballed. It’s not enough to make a significant dent in prison crowding but it is enough to absorb the inmates that would have gone to Baldwin. LA County has got about 1500 empty beds.”
“This puts GEO in a situation where they are fighting counties for money.”
The uncertainty around the deal with California is the latest in a series of problems for The GEO Group’s Michigan property.
The North Lake Correctional Facility was built as a 500 bed maximum security youth facility but was shut down in 2005 after the state ended its contract with the company amid lawsuits alleging abuse.
In 2009 GEO expanded the prison to 1,725 beds in expectation of winning a federal contract to house immigrant detainees but those plans were stopped last year after the federal Bureau of Prisons canceled its request for more space for criminal aliens.Tags: budget, corrections usa, joe baumann, private prisons, ryan sherman, The GEO Group Inc.