Q&A: What happens when a men's prison comes to town

Jan 4, 2012

Yesterday, officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation travelled to Chowchilla in the Central Valley to talk to locals about the pending conversion of Valley State Prison for Women into a men’s facility. Chowchilla, the closest town to two of the state’s three women’s prisons, has resisted the conversion, worried about the impact of bringing in thousands of male prisoners. CDCR, meanwhile, says that under realignment, the female prison population will drop so much that they won’t need all three women’s prisons. Joshua Emerson Smith covers Chowchilla as part of his job as a McClatchy Reporter with Merced Sun Star and Chowchilla News. Emerson Smith was at yesterday’s meeting and we checked in with him to find out what went down. You can also read his report on the meeting here.

What happened at the meeting?           

The meeting was in Madera at the Board of Supervisors chambers in Madera. And the Board of Supervisors addressed several regional politicians. Members from the Board of Supervisors and the Chowchilla City Council and the state senator who represents District 12, which includes Chowchilla, met with CDCR officials to discuss the impacts of converting the Valley State Prison for Women, right outside of Chowchilla, into a men’s facility. And CDCR said that they were going to do this conversion basically as the result of realignment. They’re going to have less need for women’s prisons and this will help them come into compliance with the federal court order. And the regional politicians were very upset because CDCR basically said they don’t need to do an impact analysis under CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act). CDCR basically granted themselves an exemption by saying this isn’t a “project” because the physically changes that they’re going to make to the facility are very minimal and the effects to adjacent communities and the county as a whole would also be not significant enough to require them to do another CEQA analysis. And it seems that the city or the county now has less than a week to file a challenge to that notice of exemption.

So tell me a little more about why people are upset about this conversion—and what they think an environmental impact assessment might even find.

CEQA is not necessarily just about what we traditionally think of as “environmental” impacts. It could be economic impacts. It could be quality of life impacts. It could be any kind of impact to the surrounding communities. And so what Chowchilla officials are most concerned about is that there will be an influx of families that come to relocate in Chowchilla to be near the men who will be inhabiting the converted facility. They’re concerned that men more so than women drive this kind of relocation of families to be near incarcerated individuals. And CDCR basically today put on this meeting to try to alleviate some of those concerns.

And there were several other issues as well. The District Attorney was concerned that men will be more violent inmates and his office will be saddled with having to prosecute more assault cases. That they will have to hire more deputy sheriffs. That they will basically have to pay out for more law enforcement resources as a result of this conversion. CDCR officials basically told the county and the DA that they would be housing what they called only “level 2” inmates—meaning the less serious, risky inmates. Of course the DA countered that under realignment, the state is getting rid of all except its most violent offenders. CDCR countered that the state facility is not equipped with cells and is only equipped with dorms and in order to house the more violent, more risky inmates they would have to do a retrofitting of the prison that would be too costly at this point in time. Chowchilla officials remained skeptical. But we don’t know at this point if they’re actually going to force the CDCR to defend their self-granted exemption in court.

So what do they want CDCR to do? They are losing a third to a half of their female prison population really quickly. What do people expect that they would do with this facility?

 Well, CDCR made a point of saying that they can’t afford not to use this facility. And I think what the local officials want to do is they want to see a CEQA analysis, the CEQA report done so that you get hard data on what the effects of this would be, so then they could make specific claims or specific requests to the state for mitigation efforts. Because remember, Madera County, like all other counties, have gotten money for realignment under the formula, but they haven’t necessarily gotten money to deal with this conversion, which could bring with it added costs. Say city officials are right and it does bring in a lot of relocated families to Chowchilla. Chowchilla is a small community of less than 20,000 people. Some people say 11,000. The simple influx of maybe 400 people could have a significant effect on schools, on law enforcement resources. If these families are low-income, they could be drawing on Section 8 vouchers. So there’s a lot of public services that people are afraid would be used by an influx of people.

Will staffing stay the same? Will officers need to get additional training or anything?

CDCR said that the timeline for conversion is about 18 months and that staffing levels should remain more or less the same.

Are there other towns that people are pointing to that have suffered because of a male prison?

Not really. In this case, you’re talking about a city of Chowchilla which is small and fragile. It’s not necessarily booming in the economic sense and they’re about to deal with High Speed Rail coming through their town, which could significantly impact their tax base. And so that’s one state project coming through and then on top of that, there’s this state project. And I think there’s a sense of resentment that the state is running roughshod over them when it comes to projects without taking their economic concerns into account.

In the past, there have been reports that CDCR has come to Chowchilla and said, we’re going to convert this prison and if we can’t, we have to shut it down. Did that idea come up at all?

Yes, someone asked what would you do if you were blocked from converting it. And CDCR officials basically said that’s not an option. We’ve got to convert this thing. If we’re going to meet the timeline of the federal mandate for prison population reduction, this is an integral part of the equation. They basically said look, this is so difficult already as it is. We need this. We can’t pay $50 million for another facility right now.