Governor Looks South of the Border for Prisons

Wyatt Buchanan, San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 2010

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

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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