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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
TERM LIMITS: Beatrice Patlan was able to visit her son after he was incarcerated, and says their family visits 'kept his mind and heart strong.' That will end when he is shipped to an Arizona prison.

Gone, Baby, Gone

A San Jose mother tries to prevent the Department of Corrections from sending her son to an out-of-state prison

By Raj Jayadev

WHEN Beatrice Patlan's 18-year-old son Raymond was sentenced to prison in 2007, there was only one thing that made it bearable: He was placed at Soledad Prison, a manageable hour and a half drive from her San Jose home. On her days off from work, Patlan would drive down to the Salinas Valley to visit her son, bringing his little brother and sisters so they didn't grow apart during his incarceration. They could all hug him after their long talks.

"For him, it kept his mind and heart strong," Patlan says, "and for us as a family, the visits meant Raymond could still be a part of our lives."

But those visits may now be over, as her son is being sent to serve the rest of his term in Arizona, pulling him hundreds miles out of reach of his family. Raymond Patlan is one of thousands of inmates who are now being transferred out of state to ease the staggeringly overcrowded California prison system.

Convicted of aggravated assault, and slapped with a gang enhancement, Raymond was given eight years for a first-offence crime. Beatrice believes his story that he was jumped, and used a bat to defend himself and his little brother. She knows he needs to serve the time for his crime, but she is committed to supporting him through the ordeal. And so Beatrice Patlan has been working to keep her son close.

She has repeatedly called the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, spoken with the warden at Soledad, and had sit-down meetings with Assemblymember Joe Coto's office and with state Sen. Elaine Alquist. But after exhausting every option to figure out the rules of transfer and determine whether they apply to her son, she has arrived at a demoralizing conclusion: There are no rules.

Lawsuit Over Transfers

That is also the argument behind an injunction recently brought by the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to stop what the ACLU calls an "unlawful transfer policy."

The injunction, filed on July 29, says the CDCR has failed to comply with the state's Administrative Procedure Act when implementing the transfer program.

Michael Risher, staff attorney with the ACLU, says the lawsuit is designed to bring public scrutiny to the out-of-state transfer practice. "We are trying to get the CDCR to follow the law, not secret guidelines," Risher says.

Raymond Patlan's family is one of many casualties of a broken state prison system, Risher says. His office has been getting many calls and letters from inmates and their families since rumblings of the plan first hit the prisons.

"It is an enormous hardship to suddenly be snatched and sent miles away," he says. "It is hurting California families—wives, parents and children."

Risher hopes the CDCR will take a look at the legal arguments and move to avoid having the court decide the case. In a written response to the court, the CDCR denies violating the Administrative Procedures Act.

State of Emergency

On Oct. 4, 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an official proclamation declaring a "Prison Overcrowding State of Emergency." The Legislature followed this proclamation by enacting Assembly Bill 900, which authorized $7.7 billion to create up to 53,000 new beds at state prisons in 10 years, and authorizing the transfer of 8,000 inmates to out-of-state facilities.

The move came at a time when California's prison population was at an all-time high, with more than 170,000 inmates housed in facilities designed for 100,000, and 29 of the state's 33 prisons above maximum safe capacity, according to the CDCR.

Before to the governor's proclamation of prison overcrowding, the state could only transfer inmates who had volunteered to do so. That protection to inmates who wanted to stay in-state, known as Penal Code 11191, was temporarily put on hold. The law was amended through A.B. 900 last May, and since then California has been systematically shedding inmates and sending them to states such as Tennessee, Mississippi and Arizona.

The budget stalemate in Sacramento has only put more pressure to expedite the transfer process.

Mike Potter, Joe Coto's District director, has met with Beatrice Patlan about her son's case. Potter says the prisoners are being transferred in a desperate effort to save money.

"Budget pressure is one reason the CDCR is looking to hurry and ship 8,000 inmates out of state," Potter says.

Coto was one of the few assembly members who did not vote for A.B. 900. Potter says the savings aren't worth the long-term damage done by the law.

"On the incarceration side, this program may be cheaper," Potter says. "But in terms of the cost to the inmates, their rehabilitation, and their families, these transfers may have a negative impact."

When a Rule Is Not a Rule

When Beatrice Patlan heard from her son that he had been placed on a transfer list, she went into her own emergency response plan. Finding no published criteria to challenge the transfer, she filed a request for information, initiating her own investigation under the state's Public Records Act. She received an internal memo from the CDCR regarding a "sending protocol."

According to the memo, there is a five-tiered protocol—at least on paper. The state is supposed to first look to transfer inmates who have been previously deported by the federal government; next, inmates who are being paroled outside California; third, inmates who have limited or no family ties, based on a review of their visitation history; and then inmates who have supportive family in another state. Only then is the state supposed to transfer "other inmates chosen and considered appropriate by CDCR."

Raymond was safe, according to these criteria, except for the fifth, which clearly is a catch-all that essentially nullifies the first four.

When Beatrice discovered this, she became frustrated, and launched her one-woman letter-writing campaign. She says that the CDCR, the warden, and Attorney General Jerry Brown have all promised written responses, which she has not yet received.

Beatrice Patlan has not received her regular call from Raymond either. He is currently in a "reception prison" while awaiting his permanent transfer, and cannot call out until he is placed in his destination.

She says that the last time she heard from Raymond, he was trying to cheer her up about the impending transfer to Arizona that would break up their regular family gatherings. He told her, "Just think of it as one more stop before I come home."

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