For 2,000 male Pennsylvania prison inmates, this will be their last Christmas spent relatively close to home until at least 2013.

In February, the state Department of Corrections - for the first time - will begin shipping inmates to other states to ease record overcrowding in the 27-prison system, Susan McNaughton, a spokeswoman for the department, said yesterday.

The Muskegon (Mich.) Correctional Facility will get 1,000 inmates; another 1,000 will be sent to the Green Rock Correctional Center, in Chatham, Va., she said.

The transfers - a plan decried by inmate advocates in October, when the Daily News reported that prison officials were contemplating the moves - come as the state's inmate population shows no sign of stabilizing or shrinking.

The system is designed to house about 44,000 inmates but now has more than 51,400, McNaughton said.

"This is a program to reduce the inmate population to a manageable number," she said. "This is not about saving money."

Still, the transfers will make a $5.1 million difference. The corrections department will pay Michigan and Virginia $62 per inmate, per day, for an annual cost of $45.2 million, she said. It costs about $69 per inmate, per day to house them in Pennsylvania medium-security prisons.

Corrections Secretary Jeffrey A. Beard made the decision in consultation with Gov. Rendell after Beard and his staff studied proposals from six states and visited several prisons.

Betty Jean Thompson, president of the state chapter of Citizens United to Rehabilitate Errants (CURE), called the decision "cruel and unusual" treatment of inmates and their families.

"I think that this is horrible," said Thompson, who yesterday e-mailed a protest letter to state lawmakers and civil-rights and inmate activists. "I wish there had been a better way to solve this problem. I just can't imagine what the families are going through knowing their loved ones are going to be shipped off."

The Corrections Department said that video-conferencing hook-ups will be made available, but Thompson said that those are no substitute for in-person visits.

McNaughton said that she understood Thompson's concerns but noted that overcrowded prisons lead to fights and other disruptions that may harm inmates.

"Our secretary is working to prevent these things from happening," she said. "This is a last resort. It's not something that we want to do, it's something that we have to do to maintain safety and security."

She said that inmates cannot refuse to be transferred but that only those who have received few or no family visits, who have at least three years remaining to serve and who are free of medical, mental and behavioral issues will be transferred.

Pennsylvania's inmates in Virginia will be housed separately from other inmates. The Michigan facility, which had been slated to close, is empty.

The Corrections Department will send a staffer to both places to monitor contract compliance and to answer inmates' concerns, McNaughton said.

Corrections officials hope to start bringing inmates back to the state by 2013, if four new prisons that have been approved are up and running.