A Brig Too Far

California's new institution for sex offenders is in such a remote place that it may never function efficiently.
by | November 2006

Not too long ago, the California Department of Mental Health opened a $400 million facility in Coalinga, a small Central Valley town about 70 miles southwest of Fresno. Newspapers in the state are fond of ridiculing this project as the "hospital in the middle of nowhere." They portray it as a fiasco because more than 1,100 of the 1,500 beds remain unoccupied. The real story is more complicated than that, but it doesn't reflect any better on governmental decision-making.

The department ended up choosing Coalinga, a farming town best known as the epicenter of a 1983 earthquake, in large part because conditions set by the legislature precluded virtually every other proposed site. The facility had to be built near an existing prison, on land already owned by the state. What's more, the local community had to approve it--not an easy thing, since the hospital was designed primarily to hold sex offenders. "There are a lot of communities that aren't too thrilled to have sexually violent predators in their midst," says Kirsten Macintyre, a Department of Mental Health spokeswoman. Coalinga, already a prison town and desperate for new jobs, was willing to say yes.

California clearly is going to need new places to put sex offenders. That's not because the rate of incidence has gone up--the number of forcible rapes dropped by nearly one-quarter in the state between 1999 and 2004, while other sexual felonies declined slightly. It's because the law is getting stricter. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed a bill that will lead to longer sentences, and this month voters are expected to overwhelmingly approve a ballot initiative that will increase the number of criminal convictions and civil commitments. Coalinga may seem like a white elephant right now, but it could be close to full capacity by 2010.

Even then, however, there will be a problem. Coalinga may fill up with inmates, but it is likely to have trouble attracting the employees needed to run it. "They haven't gotten it staffed, and they didn't take into account all the other needs they have to serve," complains Michael Bien, a San Francisco attorney who represents inmates.

The department's hopes of attracting physicians, therapists, nurses and other professionals to Coalinga won't grow brighter anytime soon. There's already a statewide shortage of clinical staff, and bringing qualified individuals to an out-of-the-way place such as Coalinga-- "it's like they put it on the moon," says one critic--is going to require salary incentives that haven't been budgeted. "If they want to build a prison out in the middle of nowhere," says Gary Robinson, an official with the union that represents prison doctors, "they're going to have to pay 25 to 30 percent more then if they built it in downtown Santa Barbara."

The state might have thought about some of these matters before it made the rules. The stipulations in the law--an existing nearby prison, a willing population--appear to make sense individually. Put them together, though, and you get a facility that isn't helping to deal with short-term overcrowding elsewhere and may face a long-term staff shortage even when the inmates come. That's not a happy result-- and it certainly doesn't look like good public policy.