Wed, Jul

California is Closing the Wrong Prison


CONNECTING CALIFORNIA - When your town’s biggest business is punishment, how do you fight back when you’re being punished unfairly?

That’s the predicament facing Susanville, a small town that is the seat of Lassen County in northeast California.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is righteously trying to close prisons, a historical reversal and acknowledgment that the state has incarcerated too many people for too long. But it is wrongfully targeting one of Susanville’s two state prisons, the California Correctional Center (CCC), for closure later this year. Shutting down CCC would reduce the town’s population, cost jobs, and weaken the town’s economy and healthcare infrastructure.

And state officials don’t seem much to care.

There is no discernible plan for mitigating impacts on the community. They have yet to offer a full accounting of the reasons for their decision, which came with little warning or justification. Indeed, before the state’s announcement last year of its intent to close CCC, the Susanville facility had not shown up on lists of California prisons that should close, whether compiled inside or outside of government.

In the absence of public explanation, it’s fair to wonder about the real motives behind the attempted closure. California’s rush to construct prisons in previous generations was driven by politics, not careful consideration of human impacts. Will the state, in moving to close prisons, repeat that same mistake?

What’s most puzzling about the decision is that there is an obvious alternative prison for closure: the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, in Riverside County. The Norco facility has been in such disrepair—reports have cited cockroaches, rodents, poor drinking water, terrible bathrooms, and dangerous electrical systems—that Gov. Jerry Brown tried to shut it down a decade ago. In 2016, it appeared all but certain to close, but the state gave it a reprieve in order to have the flexibility to stay below a complicated cap on populations in some facilities.

Even if Norco can’t be closed, there are other, better places to shut down than Susanville’s CCC.

Last year, Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), a coalition of groups working on criminal justice reform, put out a list of 10 prisons the state should close, based on five criteria (health conditions, overcrowding, costs, location, and homicide-suicide rates) and surveys of formerly incarcerated people and their families.

Norco was on the list. So was the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, California Medical Facility in Vacaville, California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, California State Prison Los Angeles County, and five prisons in the San Joaquin Valley (Avenal State Prison in Kings County, California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran, Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, and Kern Valley State Prison and North Kern State Prison in Delano).

CURB has welcomed the attempt to close the Susanville prison, noting that its remote location makes it hard for families to visit. (The report also suggests closing all 34 state prisons if possible). But the coalition has criticized the Newsom administration’s process for prison closings as arbitrary and confusing.

That’s an understatement. And the way Susanville is being closed has the potential to undermine the movement away from mass incarceration. The state needs to think about local context, and not just the prison system itself.

Compare the likely impacts of closing Norco’s facility versus closing Susanville’s. Shutting down Norco would likely be an economic boon, officials there have said; the prison site is in a busy part of the Interstate 15 corridor in Riverside County and could be redeveloped as a hotel, or for other business purposes. But in Susanville, geographically isolated in far northeast California, any closure would do real damage.

Correctional officers at the closed prison won’t lose their jobs, but they will be reassigned elsewhere, likely forcing their families to move. And that’s a body blow in a place like Susanville, both economically—officers are well-paid—and because it’s a community in which officers are leaders in civic organizations. Prisoners represent a significant portion of Susanville’s population, more than 6,000 of the town’s 16,000 people; losing one of the prisons means losing funding tied to population. And the town’s healthcare infrastructure, including its hospital, depends in part on serving the people who live and work at the prison.

But such local realities are taking a backseat to politics in this decision. Norco is in the populous and economically growing Inland Empire—a competitive region where Democrats have been making gains—while Susanville is small and on the wrong side of California’s political divide. Lassen County had the highest vote share in the state both for President Trump’s re-election, and in favor of the failed 2021 recall of Gavin Newsom.

Of course, the location of prisons has always been a political issue, with many communities preferring not to host. Lassen, which very much wants to keep the CCC in operation, knows this, and its leaders have emphasized the community’s devotion to its prisons.

In one extended community meeting on the Susanville courthouse steps that I attended last year, State Sen. Brian Dahle, a former Lassen County supervisor, talked emotionally and practically—in ways that did not satisfy the angry crowd—about how Susanville might convince Gov. Gavin Newsom to negotiate with the town, and to close a different prison instead.

“Let’s think like Democrats,” one local community leader declared as they strategized.

But it’s not clear if negotiated settlement is possible. Susanville has taken the fight to court, challenging the shutdown on the grounds that it violates the California Environmental Quality Act. The announced date for deactivating the prison is June 30, 2022, but the legal fight may extend beyond that.

And there is a new political dimension. Dahle, the state senator, has announced his candidacy for governor, and one of the pillars of his platform is public safety. With higher profile Republicans skipping the race, he is considered the leading GOP candidate. If he makes it through June’s first round election, as seems likely, the debate about prison closures, in Susanville and elsewhere, could soon become a statewide issue.

(Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square, where this article was featured.)


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