Aided by a rapid decline in the state's inmate population, California prison officials are proposing a dramatic change in the way they do business and moving to take control of the system back from the federal courts.
In a plan announced Monday to close one prison, revamp others and scrap most of a $6 billion prison construction plan, officials said they will save the state billions of dollars in coming years.
"It's a massive change," Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said at a Capitol news conference.
Among the proposals:
Close the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, where about 1,200 correctional employees work and 3,900 inmates are housed.
End contracts with out-of-state prisons and return 9,500 inmates to California by 2016.
Eliminate about 6,400 positions.
Halt most of a prison-expansion program, saving $4.1 billion in building costs.
The goal is to improve conditions inside California's prison system so that, by the end of 2013, the state may no longer be under the oversight of federal courts that have ordered improvements in medical, mental health and dental care.
Officials envision the cost savings will allow the state to offer new rehabilitation programs and improve educational opportunities for inmates.
The catalyst for the optimistic plan is Gov. Jerry Brown's "realignment" program, which shifted responsibility for nonviolent, low-level offenders from the prison system to county jails.
Since the plan took effect Oct. 1, the state prison population has declined by 22,000 inmates, allowing officials to do away with makeshift bunks in gymnasiums and move closer to population levels ordered last year by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I think everybody is pretty astonished at the downsizing of California prisons. I don't think anybody thought it would happen this fast " said Joan Petersilia, a Stanford University law professor who has spent more than three decades studying prison issues.
"No state has ever seen a downsizing in prisons like we've had in the last six months in California. It really is unprecedented."
Cate's 244-page proposal essentially a new spending plan that must be addressed by lawmakers in coming budget talks envisions a $1 billion savings the first year and $1.5 billion a year thereafter.
But the plan makes certain assumptions about continued declines in prison populations and a critical one about how federal courts will respond.
Because of various lawsuits brought on behalf of inmates, a three-judge panel ordered large reductions in California's overcrowded inmate population in August 2009. Last year, with California's inmate count at 180 percent of capacity, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that panel's order that the total had to be cut to 137.5 percent of capacity by June 2013.
The state is at 155 percent of capacity and estimates it will be at 141 percent by the time it reaches the deadline, or about 2,900 inmates over the cap.
Cate said officials plan to ask the three-judge panel to boost the cap to 145 percent of capacity, believing that California will have shown enough progress for the request to be approved.
But there is no guarantee the state would be granted the increase, and a staff attorney for the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, which represents inmates in the legal fight, said she would oppose such a move.
"We've never seen anything suggesting why the court should increase the population cap," said attorney Rebekah Evenson. "Keep in mind that 137 percent of capacity is well over the capacity that the prisons were built to hold."
A spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association also questioned how the prison system can be improved when staff cuts will come at the same time the prisons plan to reclassify thousands of maximum-security inmates to a lower level of oversight.
The plan announced Monday calls for refining the system to give inmates who have been "overclassified" access to rehabilitation programs.
"It's a recipe for disaster," said Ryan Sherman, director of research and analysis for the CCPOA.
Sherman said CCPOA officials want to study the plan before weighing in further, as did a spokeswoman for prison receiver J. Clark Kelso, who was appointed by the federal courts to oversee the state's inmate health care.
"One of the issues that does need to be addressed is making sure that access to quality health care can be maintained," said the spokeswoman, Nancy Kincaid. "Only the court can make that determination."
The state's prison system has been the subject of such debate for so long that some may see it as irretrievably broken. But Petersilia, the Stanford law professor who advised then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on prison issues, said she is hopeful about prospects for success.
"Our memory is so short," Petersilia said. "California prisons used to be the model for the nation and the world in the '70s.
"It's not so far past when we had a system that we could be proud of, and I think what this administration is trying to do is bring us back to that" Petersilia said.
She cautioned that much depends on whether realignment continues to work as planned, or if it ends up overwhelming county jails, as some have warned.
"That's the $64,000 question," she said. "All eyes were on the prison system because of the Supreme Court, the union and the inmates, and the jails have really been totally ignored."