Times Staff Writer

Tasty meals! A room with a view! Ping-Pong! Cable TV!

In one of the more unusual marketing campaigns undertaken by state government, California prison officials are asking inmates to bid adieu to their cellmates and transfer to lockups elsewhere in the country.

As part of the recruitment drive, wardens are screening a film extolling the virtues of out-of-state prisons and reminding convicts of the violent, overcrowded, racially charged conditions they face in California.

“You get 79 channels here -- ESPN!” one tattooed California felon, now housed in Tennessee, says in the movie.


“They talk to us like humans,” says another, “not like animals.”

The campaign reflects the desperation corrections officials face as they grapple with a ballooning prison population and no easy fix. Leaders say they will run out of room for new inmates by summer, and a federal judge has ordered the overcrowding eased by June.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has unveiled a sweeping $11.9-billion prison building and reform plan. But its prospects are uncertain in the Legislature, and creating bed space -- whether through the construction of new cells or policy changes that slow the incoming tide of convicts -- cannot be accomplished overnight.

The governor declared a state of emergency in October and announced plans to ship some inmates out of state.


So far, the transfers have been voluntary. But officials say mandatory moves are increasingly likely because so few convicts are willing to go.

In an initial survey, more than 19,000 felons said they might like a change of scenery. But now officials say they have only 600 volunteers on their list, including 365 who already have been shipped to Arizona and Tennessee.

Some convicts have been disqualified to transfer because of medical or mental health problems or because they require a high level of security not offered in the out-of-state facilities that have agreed to take California prisoners.

But two other factors may be deflating interest, officials say.


Prison gangs, wary of losing troops and control behind bars, have reportedly warned inmates not to sign up.

And false but persistent rumors of possible early releases in California also may be deterring volunteers. Because of a pending lawsuit seeking to cap the inmate population, many convicts apparently believe that a judge may allow some to go free before the end of their terms -- an opportunity they would miss if they were housed in another state.

“We know there are some intangible factors out there, like the gang allegiances, that are affecting our numbers,” said Bill Sessa, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “We’re hoping that over time, those influences will wear down.”

Critics of the transfer program said the department was foolish to undertake it, arguing that the number of beds freed by the moves would do little to ease crowding.


“The crowding of 173,000 inmates into space for about 100,000 is not solved by moving a few thousand to facilities in other states,” said Bob Driscoll of Woodland Hills, the father of an inmate. He called the moves “a desperation measure to allow the governor to say, ‘See, we’re doing something about overcrowding,’ even if it is just tokenism.”

An executive with the prison guards union, which has sued to block the transfers on grounds that they violate the state Constitution, said the sluggish interest among convicts was predictable.

“Most of these inmates have some family or girlfriend or pen pal or other connection here, so the idea of transferring a long ways away, to the unknown, is not that attractive,” said Lance Corcoran, a lobbyist with the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. “Not that the department hasn’t tried. They’ve marketed these places like cruise ships.”

Corcoran added that many out-of-state facilities operated by private companies have a checkered history, including violence and abuse, and that California convicts -- the promotional tape notwithstanding -- might be in for a rude surprise if they transferred.


Officials said the promotional film, which is being shown on the prisons’ closed-circuit TV, was designed to demystify the transfers and convince inmates that the grass may be greener outside the Golden State.

The 20-minute movie depicts the entire relocation experience, including searches and shackling at the beginning, a charter flight and the arrival at a clean, quiet prison with polished floors.

Most compelling are testimonials from some of the 80 convicts who already have arrived at the West Tennessee Detention Facility in Mason, a private lockup run by Corrections Corp. of America.

In voluntary interviews, inmates praise their new surroundings, including the food, the staff, the recreation and the job and education opportunities.


Footage shows inmates lounging in roomy cells with views, playing basketball and chess, lining up for hot meals and chatting amiably with smiling officers.

Inmates of different races mingle -- something unheard of on a California prison yard -- and one convict marvels that “we’ve already had dental exams,” which are hard to come by behind bars in the Golden State.

“It blew all of our minds,” one inmate says of the Tennessee experience. “We didn’t expect all this.”

Whether such glowing reports will woo more volunteers on California’s cellblocks remains to be seen.


Corrections Secretary James Tilton has said he hopes to transfer at least 5,000 inmates. Under contracts the state has already signed, incarcerating inmates out of state saves money: $63 a day is spent on each inmate compared with California’s $71 a day.

In case more volunteers do not step forward, the governor’s emergency proclamation lays the foundation for compulsory moves, which are sure to be controversial.

In his emergency decree, the governor authorizes suspension of a law requiring an inmate’s consent for an out-of-state transfer.

He also orders that the first convicts moved against their will be noncitizens facing possible deportation upon completion of their terms.


Some lawmakers have voiced objections to mandatory moves. And inmate advocates said they would probably challenge the transfers in court.

Administration officials already are defending the voluntary program against three lawsuits, and at least one judge believes that the state is on shaky legal ground.

Responding to a lawsuit by the prison guards and a public employee union in late November, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Gail Ohanesian rejected a request that she block the transfers but said they might be illegal.

The unions argue that Schwarzenegger improperly used the Emergency Services Act in declaring an emergency inside state prisons, saying the law was reserved for natural disasters. They also say that the state Constitution prohibits the government from using private companies for jobs normally performed by state employees.


Ohanesian said the plaintiffs were “reasonably likely” to win when the case comes to trial Feb. 16. She did, however, call the transfers a “good faith” effort by a governor facing an overcrowding crisis.