Published on
the San Francisco Chronicle

Calif. Governor Looks South of the Border for Prisons

Wyatt Buchanan

The California Institution for Men prison is seen in Chino, California. A riot took place at the prison in August 2009, showing, according to California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, that the prison system is collapsing and needs to be reformed. Schwarzenegger suggested California could ease its crowded prisons by sending thousands of undocumented inmates to specially built jails in Mexico. (AFP/Getty Images/File/Michal Czerwonka)

Sacramento -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Monday that the state could save
$1 billion by building and operating prisons in Mexico to house
undocumented felons who are currently imprisoned in California.

The governor floated the idea during an appearance at the Sacramento
Press Club in response to a question about controlling state spending.
His speech came on the same day that changes in prisoner parole and
credits for time served took effect.

"We pay them to build the prisons down in Mexico and then we have
those undocumented immigrants be down there in a prison. ... And all
this, it would be half the cost to build the prisons and half the cost
to run the prisons," Schwarzenegger said, predicting it would save the
state $1 billion that could be spent on higher education.

About 19,000 of the state's 171,000 prisoners are illegal
immigrants, according to the most recent statistics available online.
The state spends more than $8 billion a year on the prison system.

Aaron McLear, spokesman for the governor, said later that
Schwarzenegger's comments did not represent a concrete proposal, but "a
concept somebody mentioned to him" and he could not say where the
governor came up with the $1 billion figure.

The governor's statements seemed to catch his prisons chief off
guard. Matthew Cate, secretary of the Department of Corrections and
Rehabilitation, said it was not a proposal the department was pursuing
and he assumed it was an extension of Schwarzenegger's call to
privatize some of the state's prison operations.

Privatizing prisons

In his State of the State speech earlier this month, Schwarzenegger
called for allowing private companies to compete with state-run
prisons, which, he said, could save billions of dollars.

After the governor spoke Monday, Cate said the department has not
reviewed or analyzed the Mexico proposal and said the department has no
projections of how much money the state could save. He also
acknowledged it could raise a host of jurisdictional and other issues.

"It would probably be complicated, but without looking into it yet,
I'm not sure," said Cate, who was present at the Press Club event.

California is currently under a federal court order to reduce its
prison population by 40,000 inmates over the next two years. A federal
judge installed a receiver in 2006 to oversee inmate health care in
state prisons, finding that substandard care led to the death of about
one prisoner per week.

Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, which sued the
state on behalf of prisoners, said the governor's idea was "not very

"It would be like the state of California having a separate island
of its own government in Mexico. It just seems like that would be
impossible," Specter said.

The governor's idea also drew criticism from the prison guards union.

"There are a number of reasons why it not only won't work, but
shouldn't work," said Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the California
Correctional Peace Officers Association. "There is no obligation from a
sovereign nation to incarcerate and rehabilitate individuals who have
not committed crimes within their borders."

Nearly any change in how California manages its prisons spurs controversy.

On Monday, some lawmakers were criticizing laws on parole and
sentencing reductions that took effect this week. The changes, which
were part of last year's budget negotiations, will reduce the state's
prison population by about 6,500 inmates this year, according to the
corrections department.

Changes criticized

That will mean people who are regarded as low-risk parolees will not
be monitored by a parole agent and prisoners can earn additional
credits for time served in prison, which would reduce their sentences.

Those changes were criticized by both Republicans and Democrats,
including Assemblyman Ted Lieu, D-Torrance (Los Angeles County), who is
a candidate for state attorney general. Lieu co-authored legislation
introduced Monday to require local authorities to be involved in those
parole decisions and for the state to notify local officials when
people are given early release into their jurisdictions. He said the
changes threaten public safety.

"I guarantee you crime will increase and there will be more victims of crime," he said.

Cate disputed that assessment, predicting the number of people who
commit crimes again and return to prison would fall, as they would earn
credits for completing programs that prisons officials say reduce

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