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California Prison Closures Threaten Local Economies

The state announced it would shut down a prison in Susanville that could result in a loss of a quarter of the city’s workforce. Gov. Newsom has pledged to close two of the state’s 34 correctional facilities.

(TNS) — Just days after California Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration announced a plan to close a prison in Susanville last month, dozens of "for sale" signs for homes began popping up in a rural Lassen County town.

"We went from a market where there were no homes," said Patricia Hagata, executive director at the Lassen County Chamber of Commerce. "To where we have an overload of homes."

According to the city's latest financial statement, the closure of the California Correctional Center scheduled for June 2022 means Susanville could lose more than a quarter of its workforce — jobs that pay upwards of $90,000 in some cases. Some workers could find jobs next door at the High Desert State Prison, but many would have to move. The next closest state prison is more than three hours away in Folsom.

Already, Susanville residents worry about the job loss cascading down to layoffs in schools and government, as well as businesses. Other rural towns whose economies depend on prisons are concerned as well, said Staci Heaton, acting vice president for government affairs with Rural County Representatives of California.

Shutting the prison in Susanville and another in Tracy fulfills a pledge Newsom made to close two of the state's 34 correctional facilities. Some want him to go further, citing a dramatic decline in the state's inmate population. About 95,000 people were in custody in California prisons last month, down from 144,000 a decade ago.

Newsom did not announce plans to close another site when he presented a state budget proposal last week, but rural communities remain wary about more potential cuts.

"How do we plan to replace that type of development? What do we do now?" Heaton said. "Is the state going to work with the county on some sort of a plan or leave them to figure it out for themselves?"

Rural Towns' Economy Dependent On Prisons

California's prison system employs some 50,000 people and consumes about $16 billion in annual state spending. Several of the prisons are big players in their local economies.

Sierra Conservation Center near Jamestown is one of the two biggest employers in Tuolumne County. California Men's Colony employs 1,800 in San Luis Obispo County.

Taft in Kern County, which had its federal prison close last year, lost 18 percent of its population in 2020, the highest population loss in the state that year.

Rural towns have had other industries like timber. But they have largely gone away. Susanville's last timber mill, for instance, closed in 2003.

Prisons also pay among the highest wages in rural communities.

"It's a substantial job loss that can't just be absorbed by small communities like Lassen County," Heaton said.

Some rural California representatives would rather see the state consider shutting prisons in urban centers.

"The state would make a lot of money if it sells San Quentin," said Sen. Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, referring to the state prison in Marin County that sits on waterfront property. "That seems to me like a better opportunity than to destroy our community up north. That's a question that didn't get answered. How was it prioritized?"

What Else Can You Do With A Prison?

States have repurposed prisons for uses from community spaces to incubators for small farms, said Nicole Porter, the director of advocacy at The Sentencing Project. "There's a range of projects that's been conceived for closed prison sites that offer up a possibility."

In Coalinga southwest of Fresno, Casey Dalton is part of a group that turned a closed prison into a commercial cannabis growing and manufacturing operation. The prison's kitchen, for instance, is now a place where workers make gummies and other edible products.

The plant has created dozens of jobs, Dalton said, helping to replace some 100 jobs lost when the Claremont Custody Center closed in 2011. Dalton said her company expects to pay Coalinga, which has about a $9 million annual budget, over $1 million this year on permit fees and local taxes.

"I believe there's a path forward for those vacant prisons to be converted to other useful uses," Dalton said. "The infrastructure that's been placed for security transferred perfectly for our uses."

Still, complexities abound. The California Correctional Center, for instance, has its water and sewer system connected to the nearby High Desert State Prison, Dahle said.

The jobs created by the repurposing of prisons may also not pay as well as correctional jobs. Pay for junior cannabis growers, for instance, ranges from $30,000 to $70,000, according to a marijuana job site Hempstaff.

"You're not going to get a correctional officer who just got laid off to go to work for a cannabis company," said Amanda Autre, a Susanville resident who came to the Capitol last week to protest the closure. "You're talking to very highly trained, skilled people that are out there, and their skills are very unique for what they can do."

Residents like Autre don't have to go far to see how a prison closure can affect their lives. They have to drive just 40 miles southeast to Sierra Army Depot, much of which Lassen County Administrative Officer Richard Egan said has been left closed and unused.

"The prison will probably end up the same way," Hagata said.

Helping Prison Workers and Communities

Ivette Alé, the senior policy lead for the criminal justice reform organization Dignity and Power Now, called for California to adopt a strategy of "just transition," similar to how the state is working to shift its workforce away from fossil fuels.

That means building community-based mental health clinics to address what Alé calls the trauma of incarceration for inmates and workers alike. It also means helping older workers retire and training the remaining staff for other jobs, such as in emergency management or mental health support, Alé said.

"Every community needs mental health care professionals. Every community needs support in health care professionals," Alé said. "I don't think those needs are going away anytime soon."

Rural communities also need more investment in their infrastructure to help attract businesses, Heaton of the rural county lobbying organization said. Egan of Lassen County called for more investment in broadband, transportation as well as firefighting.

If California is to shut down prisons, community leaders and criminal justice reform advocates alike say the state needs to engage in deep conversations about how it plans to use the money saved from the closures to help the areas affected.

"What does their imagination and experience as people most impacted by prison closures alongside people who are incarcerated, what are their dreams for their communities?" said Brian Kaneda, the deputy director for the Californians United for a Responsible Budget which has advocated for more prison closures. "Because you can't tell me people's dreams for their communities is a prison."

(c)2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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