The Sacramento Bee

Calif. has criteria to pick prisons for closings

- BY ANDREW SHEELER asheeler@sacbee.com

The California Department of Correction­s and Rehabilita­tion has plans to shut down two prisons, but more closures could soon be on the way because of the state’s rapidly shrinking inmate population.

According to the Legislativ­e Analyst’s Office, the state could close a total of five prisons by 2025, which in turn could save an estimated $1.5 billion in annual spending. The correction­s department, which has a budget of $16 billion, oversees 34 prisons and more than

50,000 employees. New criminal sentencing laws over the last decade gradually reduced the state’s prison population from about 144,000 inmates in 2011 to about

120,000 last year. The number of inmates in state custody plummeted in the coronaviru­s pandemic, dropping to about

95,000 this month. Those numbers have some state lawmakers urging the correction­s department to close more sites.

The California Department of Correction­s and Rehabilita­tion uses several criteria when determinin­g whether to close a facility. Those factors include:

Cost to operate at the new reduced capacity

Impact of closure on the workforce

Housing needs for all population­s

Long-term investment­s in state-owned and operated correction­al facilities

Public safety and rehabilita­tion

Durability of the state’s solution to prison overcrowdi­ng

Major employers

The two closures currently announced — Deuel Vocational Institutio­n in Tracy and California Correction­al Center in Susanville — have a number of things in common.

Both facilities are old; the facility in Tracy was built in 1953, while the prison in Susanville was built in 1963. Both facilities have hundreds of millions of dollars worth of deferred maintenanc­e that needs to be completed, according to the Legislativ­e Analyst’s Office.

And both facilities are major employers in their communitie­s.

The California Correction­al Center, in rural Lassen County, employs more than 1,000 people. There are only 8,800 jobs in the whole county, according to Staci Heaton, acting vice president for government­al affairs with Rural County Representa­tives of California.

Heaton said that the state provided nearly no notice to Lassen County government officials before announcing the planned closure on Tuesday. With the way the government handled the California Correction­al Center closing, there’s reason for rural counties to be concerned, Heaton said.

“We’d be crazy not to worry that there will be more closures in rural areas,” Heaton said.

DEFERRED MAINTENANC­E IN OLD PRISONS

The Legislativ­e Analyst’s Office, in a 2020 report, provided a list of the 12 oldest prisons that collective­ly have more than $11 billion in deferred maintenanc­e costs. Both the Susanville and Tracy facilities were on that list.

Other facilities on the list include: San Quentin State Prison, California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, Correction­al Training Facility in Soledad, California Institutio­n for Men in Chino, California Rehabilita­tion Center in Norco, Folsom State Prison, Correction­al Medical Facility in Vacaville, California Correction­al Institutio­n in Tehachapi, Sierra Conservati­on Center in Jamestown and California Institutio­n for Women in Corona.

Assemblyma­n Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, has been an outspoken supporter of cutting prison expenses, and he commended the state’s Tuesday decision to close the California Correction­al Center in Susanville.

“We spend almost as much on our correction­s system as we do for our higher education system, and most California­ns would say that’s not the best use of taxpayer funds,” Ting said in an interview.

Ting called the closure announceme­nt a good first step, but said that the California Department of Correction­s and Rehabilita­tion needs to do a better job of identifyin­g potential prison closures, and also of working with communitie­s to mitigate the impact of shutdowns.

One group that celebrated Tuesday’s closure announceme­nt was California­ns United for a Responsibl­e Budget. The group challenged the idea that closing prisons will have a harmful effect on the rural communitie­s where they are located, calling them “Republican talking points.”

“Prisons are not healthy employment engines for communitie­s,” Deputy Director Brian Kaneda said in a statement. “They are traumatic, unhealthy places that lead to lasting physical and emotional health impacts for the people that work in these facilities.”

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