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California Town Fighting to Keep Prison Open

by Keith Sanders

In the 1950s, the timber mills in Susanville, California, began to shutter. For this isolated town of about 8,000 residents, the economic impact of losing its only industry was devastating. But in 1963 the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) came to the rescue. The department erected a 2,300-bed facility called the California Correctional Center (CCC).

Since then, the prison facility has become integral to Susanville’s economy. It brought jobs, business for local dairy farmers and stores, and a certain amount of security to people living 86 miles from Reno, Nevada, the city nearest them. Roughly 45% of the jobs in Susanville are tied to CCC and the nearby High Desert State Prison.

“They came in, and they promised to buy everything local. It was all about economic benefit to the community,” Mike D’Kelly, a local dairy farmer, recalled. “They got it built, and we became a pretty happy little prison town,” he added.

With only about 13% of Susanville’s residents attaining undergraduate degrees, CCC offered a generous income as an alternative. Non-managerial correctional staff earn an average of $87,500 a year, giving many in the town the financial wherewithal to purchase homes and raise families.

All of this, however, is soon coming to an end. California recently announced that it will close down CCC in June 2022, as well as another prison in Tracy, CA in September.

The California Legislative Analyst’s office issued a report last February recommending closing down four prisons in the state because of high maintenance and operating costs. San Quentin, the California Men’s Colony, the Correctional Training Facility, and the California Rehabilitation Center are slated for potential closure.

Although not listed in the Legislative Analyst’s report, closing CCC and the Tracy prison came at the heels of a pledge by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The governor cited a dwindling prison population, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and budget considerations as reasons for closing the two prison facilities. The CDCR estimates that it will save $122 million a year from CCC’s closure. That represents less than 1% of the state’s $17 billion prison budget. California’s prison population has fallen dramatically since its peak in 2006 of 173,000. Currently, there are approximately 97,000 prisoners housed in California facilities, down from over 117,000 since January 2020.

The decrease, according to Dana Simas, a spokesman for the CDCR, is attributed to the state’s response to minimizing COVID-19 infection rates, as well as “criminal justice reforms, many of which were approved by California voters,” and to litigation. Simas indicated in a statement that California is following a “federal court order mandating that the state significantly reduce its prison population.”

Many of the residents of Susanville are not enthusiastic about CCC’s closure. They claim the financial savings to the state’s prison budget pales in comparison to the negative impact on the small town’s economy. Businesses are closing and “for sale” signs have become a common sight in neighborhood lawns as residents flee to find better opportunities elsewhere.

Those choosing to stay in Susanville are facing unemployment and uncertainty.

“You have people that were born and raised in this town that went to work at CCC right out of high school,” Jason Bernard, a retired CCC employee said. “They’re shrugging their shoulders like zombies, not knowing what’s going to happen,” Bernard reflected.

Closing CCC also impacts the town’s budget and the local school district. Both the school and town’s funding are “population based” Susanville’s mayor, Mendy Schuster, noted. “We don’t know how it will affect citizen services. There’s this whole domino effect that’s happening,” she added. The use of prison building to provide welfare for poor rural towns has tended to be a bust with dying towns trying to stave off the inevitable on the backs of prisoners.

Some of Susanville’s residents are threatening to sue Gov. Newsom’s administration. They believe that CCC’s closure is retaliation for Lassen County’s conservative voting record. Seventy-five percent of those in Lassen County, which includes Susanville, cast ballots for Donald Trump in the last election. Many of the county’s residents also signed a recent petition to recall Gov. Newsom from office.

Simas denied that CCC’s closure was retaliatory in nature.

While prison reform advocates support shutting down as many prisons as possible in America, some caution that the process can negatively affect communities. Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, insists that states must have a role in helping communities like Susanville adjust without a prison-only economy. “That community’s economic success should not be predicated on being a human warehouse that disappears people from their homes,” Porter argued. “The state created this problem, and it’s the state’s responsibility to address it.”

The bigger reality is the past 1,000 years of human history has been one of rural to urban migration as people move to cities for jobs and a higher standard of living. Of course, the prisoners held in these rural prisons far from their homes and families have not been asked for their opinion on the prison closures.

On August 27, 2021, several dozen people held a protest at the California State Capital in Sacramento to oppose the prison’s closure. The protest was organized by SEIU Local 1000.

On August 23, 2021 the Lassen County Superior Court issued a temporary restraining order, later converted to a preliminary injunction enjoining the state from closing the prison. The court held the state had not complied with procedural requirements to close the prison. See: City of Susanville v. CDCR, Superior Court, Lassen County. 


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