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California prisons face maximum security shortage

Double-tiered bunks are seen in one of the cells at a formerly closed housing unit  at  the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, in Elk Grove, Calif. that was scheduled to be reopened to handle the increase of inmates sentenced under the new prison realignment program.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Double-tiered bunks are seen in one of the cells at a formerly closed housing unit at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, in Elk Grove, Calif.

Last year, California began complying with a federal court order to reduce its prison population by shifting thousands of low-level felons to county custody. It’s called “realignment” and although it helped bring down the number of inmates in prison, it won’t solve another problem: Where to put the thousands of serious and violent inmates.

The number of inmates in state prisons has already dropped by 16,000 since realignment took effect in October. Corrections officials project that the diversion of low-level felons to counties will reduce the state prison population by 40,000 inmates within a few years. But California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation can’t shift serious felons to the counties.

In a report out last week the Legislative Analyst’s Office projected that as realignment progresses, state prisons will have a surplus of 15,000 low security beds and a shortage of 13,000 high-security beds.

The non-partisan report suggest several ways to deal with the mismatch.

Analyst Drew Soderborg says, "One thing that we’re recommending is that they try to maximize their use of their existing space to house high security inmates."

Soderborg thinks CDCR should convert most of the reception centers used to temporarily house new inmates into the higher security housing the prison system needs.

Corrections is also in the process of converting Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla into a men’s prison. The LAO recommends that CDCR use the prison to house as many serious offenders as possible.

Soderborg also says, "We’re recommending that they identify if there’s any other facilities out there that they can use to house high security inmates."

Converting facilities from minimum to maximum security will require an investment in construction, equipment and additional staff.

Soderborg says the state could save money by shutting down some of its more expensive prisons: One example the LAO's report cites is the California Institution for Men in Chino. Its security level matches that of the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, but Deuel spends $10,000 less per inmate per year to house felons than Chino does.

Soderborg says CDCR could also consider shutting down remote prisons that are difficult and expensive to staff and transferring inmates to maximum-security prisons in other states. He says California could also keep some of its high security facilities "slightly overcrowded."