Lawyers for California's prison inmates today asked a three-judge panel of federal judges to find Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in contempt for "openly" defying an August order to slash more than 40,000 inmates from the state's clogged prison system.

In court papers, various groups behind a lawsuit against the state prison system maintain that the plan released by the governor last month to relieve prison overcrowding fell so far short he should be held in both civil and criminal contempt "for his apparent defiance" of the judges' demand to fix the crisis immediately.

"At this stage of the proceedings in these decades-old cases, in the face of defendants' bald defiance of the court's order...the court must ensure that its orders are followed, and there must be consequences for defendants' unlawful acts," prisoner rights lawyers argued.

The unique three-judge panel in August found that California's prisons are so overcrowded that they violate inmates' constitutional rights because of the inability of the prison system to provide adequate medical and mental health care. The court ordered state officials to present a plan that would cut at least 40,000 inmates from the prison population over the next two years, about a quarter of the prisoner rolls.

But Schwarzenegger and state prisons chief Matthew Cate filed a plan with the court that calls for lowering the inmate population by about 20,000 inmates over the next three years. The governor also asked the court for more time to coax more concessions from the Legislature, which failed to back a package of reforms earlier this summer that could have slashed about 37,000 inmates from the state's prisons.


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Lawyers for the inmates say that plan is what amounts of "utter contempt" for the court's orders.

The governor's office was not immediately available for comment. Schwarzenegger last month called his submission to the court a "comprehensive public safety plan" that balances the need to lessen prison overcrowding with concerns about releasing dangerous criminals on the streets.

Contact Howard Mintz at 408-286-0236