California Governor Jerry Brown, facing a federal court order to ease overcrowding in the state's prison system, proposed a $315 million plan Tuesday to expand inmate capacity by leasing space from county jails and other facilities.
The announcement also comes during a hunger strike that erupted in multiple prisons across the state more than six weeks ago. The prisoners say they are protesting against solitary confinement, which they call inhumane.
The Democratic governor, who was joined by Republican leaders of the state legislature in announcing the bill, said his proposal would reduce California's prisons to 137.5 percent of capacity, as required by the court, and avoid the controversial early release of thousands of inmates.
He is seeking passage of the bill in the California legislature, which would allocate funding.
"This legislation will protect public safety and give us time to work with public officials and interested parties to make thoughtful changes in the overall criminal justice system," Brown said in a written statement.
After years of litigation, a specially appointed panel of three appellate judges ruled in 2009 that California's prisons can exceed their design capacity but set a specific cap on the inmate population that would force the state to either find new homes for some 10,000 prisoners or let them go.
Frustrated with the slow pace of the state's response, the three judges have twice threatened Brown with contempt.
Earlier this month the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a petition for a stay of that order by state prison officials, who argued that they were working to meet the population target by Dec. 31 but that doing so could be costly and pose a risk to public safety.
Though Brown's joint appearance with Republican leaders and Democratic Assembly Speaker John Perez suggested bipartisan support for his plan, Senate president pro tem Darrell Steinberg took immediate issue with the bill.
"The governor's proposal is a plan with no promise and no hope. As the population of California grows, it's only a short matter of time until new prison cells overflow and the Court demands mass releases again," Steinberg said in a written statement.
"More money for more prison cells alone is not a durable solution; it is not a fiscally responsible solution; and it is not a safe solution," he said. "We must invest in a durable criminal justice strategy, which reduces both crime and prison overcrowding."
According to the governor's office, his plan would allocate $315 million for the state to "expeditiously" lease in-state and out-of-state prison capacity, including at county jails and private facilities.
Brown's proposal comes as new attention is being focused on California prisons during a hunger strike by inmates to protest conditions in segregated housing units where some prisoners have been held for decades in isolation.
The protest is the third and largest hunger strike staged by inmates over solitary confinement in the last two years. In its early days, tens of thousands of prisoners were reportedly participating in the strike. Weeks later, the number stood at 346 prisoners in nine different prisons.
Prisoner Randal Sondai Ellis, participating in the hunger strike from the epicenter at Pelican Bay State Prison, wrote in a letter to the San Francisco Bay View newspaper, "There are men here who are willing to die ... either you stand up for yourself or you'll be sitting here while they play these games for the next 30 years."
"As of last Monday, I had lost 26 pounds," Ellis wrote.
State officials deny the inmates' claims of inhumane conditions, saying that some prisoners have cell mates, are permitted visits and have access to a law library.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation last week won a court order allowing them to force feed some of the prisoners taking part in the hunger strike, though officials said there was no immediate need to do so.
Spokeswoman Joyce Hayhoe, representing the medical receiver’s office, told prison watchdog Solitary Watch that "we have no plans to use the court order at this time. We would only use this order as a guide for an inmate near death."
Al Jazeera and Reuters