Wednesday, April 1, 2009

SACRAMENTO, CALIF. (AP) - The head of California’s prison system said Wednesday he will ask state legislators to approve expanding three prisons as a way to relieve overcrowding so severe federal judges may soon order the state to free inmates.

The construction projects would be the first to draw money from a nearly $8 billion bond measure approved two years ago. The money was stalled, though, until Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the state budget into law in February.

Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate said he plans to seek approval within weeks to build more cellblocks at two prisons near Delano and to convert a juvenile lockup near Paso Robles. Those moves combined would house 2,800 inmates.

The $810 million Cate will seek from legislative budget committees would pay for those three expansions, plus building a re-entry center in Stockton for 500 inmates who are nearing the end of their prison terms. It would be the first of several planned regional re-entry centers to help inmates adjust in the months before they are paroled.

Actual construction of the four facilities will still depend on when the bond markets thaw, Cate said, because bonds to pay for construction can’t be sold until then. Building the facilities would take about two years, he said.

The proposed construction comes as a special panel of federal judges is preparing a final order that could force California to release a third of its nearly 170,000 inmates. The judges tentatively ruled in February that severe crowding is causing unconstitutional conditions for physically and mentally ill inmates.

To that end, Cate said he is working with a court-appointed receiver to see if some of the planned construction could be used for sick inmates.

California already has taken other steps to relieve crowding, including sending about 8,000 inmates to prisons in other states and changing policies to keep more parolees from returning to prison.

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