As many as 5,000 California convicts will be transferred out of state to ease an overcrowding crisis in the nation's largest prison system, a top corrections official said Friday.
"We are severely overcrowded, and the need for more space is absolutely critical," state Corrections Secretary James Tilton said in a statement. "This decision is being made to protect public safety."
In December, a federal judge warned that he would start releasing inmates early or prohibit convicts from being sent to state prisons from county jails unless the state acted immediately to ease overcrowding.
The threat followed an executive order signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in October authorizing voluntary and involuntary transfers of up to 5,000 inmates. At the time, a survey found that nearly 20,000 inmates were willing to be sent voluntarily to other states.
Since then, however, only about 380 inmates have volunteered, despite a marketing campaign by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that included videos showing inmates in better conditions in out-of-state prisons.
In one video, a former California inmate boasts about having television selections that include ESPN.
California's 33 state prisons are designed to hold 100,000 inmates but currently house about 174,000. About 16,000 inmates sleep in gymnasiums, hallways and other common areas filled with beds.
"We will continue to seek volunteer inmates who are willing to serve their sentences in other states," Tilton said. "But we also will begin to move inmates involuntarily so that they are no longer sleeping in gymnasiums, day rooms and other inappropriate areas of the prisons."
The first transfers could start within days, although administrative appeals by inmates could delay some for up to 10 weeks.
Prison guards fear some inmates will turn violent if forced to transfer.
"This is lighting a match to an already tense powder keg," said Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
But the pressure from the court is forcing the state to act, Tilton said. "We have tension now, and every day we don't move inmates, it just gets worse."
Private prisons in Mississippi, Arizona and Oklahoma are likely to receive transfers.
Lawsuits have left federal courts in charge of various aspects of California prisons, with overcrowding at the root of many of the system's problems.
Schwarzenegger has asked lawmakers to approve an $11 billion building plan for new prison space and to consider changing the state's sentencing and parole laws. Tilton said relief from those measures would be years away and the department has no other immediate options except transfers.