WITH prisons from Virginia to Oregon bulging at the bars, many corrections officials have latched on to the idea of renting cells in other states.
The only problem is, many of the prisoners themselves don't like the idea - and are quietly revolting.
Colorado, for instance, now faces a $17 million class-action lawsuit from 500 inmates it sent to a county jail in Texas last year. Their complaint: ''abusive conditions.''
A lawsuit has also been filed by Massachusetts prisoners who say their placement in a Dallas jail violates the ''anti-exile'' clause of the Bay State's 216-year-old Constitution. In New Mexico, a federal judge temporarily halted the transfer of state prisoners to Texas, while he studied inmates' claims of being denied education and recreation programs and family visits.
Indeed, the growing trend toward jail transfers raises fundamental questions of prisoners' rights versus states' needs to ease overcrowding. It also highlights different incarceration philosophies and practices across the country.
''This is such a hardship for families,'' says Diane Tramutola-Lawson of the Colorado chapter of CURE, a national prison-reform group. ''Most of these people don't have the resources to travel 1,000 miles.''
The conflicts are likely to sharpen in the future as prison transfers increase. So far, at least 11 states have sent inmates out of state. Another dozen have moved convicts from state prisons to county and local lockups.
Under the new jail-striped law of supply and demand, states doing the transferring not only ease overcrowding but also can save money: It is usually cheaper to board inmates elsewhere than to build new prisons.
Most of the transfers are going to Texas, where a prison building boom has left local jurisdictions with surplus beds. Other states, though, with empty cells - what few there are - are interested in cashing in on the transfer craze, too. Florida is looking at renting out jail space. Minnesota already has.
Still, as the Colorado case shows, problems can arise. The American Civil Liberties Union filed the class-action suit against the state, claiming the convicts' constitutional rights have been violated.
It argues that conditions at the Bowie County Correctional Facility in northeastern Texas, where the inmates were sent in 1995, constitute cruel and unusual punishment and deny the prisoners access to legal assistance.
The Colorado convicts have since been moved to another Texas jail, the Karnes County Correctional Center, outside San Antonio. Until construction of several in-state prisons is completed, Colorado doesn't have room to take the inmates back.
With litigation pending, officials at the Colorado prison are tight-lipped about potential liability. They concede, however, that the Bowie County jail - a converted postal warehouse - wasn't suited for long-term incarceration.
''A facility designed for short-term incarceration will always engender complaints,'' says Liz McDonough, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Corrections. ''From a design standpoint, that's not how you would build your own.''
The Bowie County jail houses 24 inmates in each 40-foot by 40-foot cell - with beds, showers, commodes, and eating tables all in the same room, says David Miller, a lawyer with the ACLU in Denver. Because the jail offers few educational or work programs, most prisoners spend 23 hours a day in their cell. Colorado inmates also complained of meager food, scarce medical care, and abusive guards, Mr. Miller says.
In the current political climate, which leans toward more chain gangs and the death penalty, there is little sympathy either in Texas or Colorado for the constitutional or human rights of convicts. ''The public is tired of these people getting TV and special privileges,'' says Bowie County Sheriff Mary Choate.
But jail conditions are not the core issue, says the Department of Correction's Ms. McDonough. For most inmates, the real problem is being sent far from home, so the department doesn't go out of state unless it's unavoidable, she says. ''It's a nightmare from a management standpoint. It's detrimental to the inmates and their families.''
Critics also cite studies showing the significance of family ties in reducing recidivism. ''Prison culture is very destructive - like a finishing school for how to be a criminal,'' says Jim Mustin of the Family and Corrections Network, a national volunteer group. ''The family is often the one thing that makes prisoners want to go straight.''