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Judge Dismisses Suit Filed by California Town to Keep State Prison Open

by Keith Sanders

Prison is big business in America. Not only do billion-dollar corporations compete to warehouse individuals, so do American cities. That’s why in 2021, the California city of Susanville sued the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to keep it from going through with plans to close its prison there. [See: PLN, Jan. 2022, p.32.]

Susanville City Administrator Dan Newton and the City Council filed the suit against the state, arguing that CDCR’s plan violated the California Environmental Quality Act. The act requires a formal review of the financial and environmental impact that prison and jail closures have on their communities. In Susanville, which was profiled in a documentary film aptly titled Prison Town USA, over 45% of workers are employed at the California Correctional Center (CCC) or an adjacent lockup, High Desert State Prison, which is not scheduled to close.

The suit alleged that the economic impact on the city of 8,000 was not taken into account when the decision was made to close CCC. In Lassen County Superior Court, the city won a preliminary injunction in August 2021 to stop CDCR from closing the prison. Things seemed to keep going the city’s way at hearing in May 2022, when Judge Robert F. Moody chided the state, “Your problem is you haven’t complied with anything.”

Then on June 30, 2022, Gov. Gavin Newsome (R) signed a new state budget that included a trailer bill, excluding the closures of state prisons and juvenile facilities from any review under the state’s environmental law. After that, Judge Moody dissolved the preliminary injunction on September 8, 2022, ruling that the facility’s closure could proceed.

“The legislature and the CDCR both have had and have expressed policy reasons for closing prisons: there is a paucity of inmates and the population of inmates is in continuous decline and the resultant reductions in required staff and physical plant make it fiscally imprudent to maintain,” Judge Moody asserted in the ruling. See: City of Susanville v. Calif. Dep’t of Corr. & Rehab., Cal. Super. (Lassen Cty.).

Although Susanville was disappointed with the ruling, others applauded it. “Throughout this entire litigation, the prisoners inside CCC have been treated either as revenue or as irrelevant,” said Shakeer Rahman, a Los Angeles attorney who filed an amicus brief on behalf of almost 100 CCC prisoners.

The state’s 2021 budget noted that the 59-year-old prison needs $503 million in repairs. In their amicus brief, prisoners said ceilings leak and toilets filled with green algae do not flush. Alarmingly, when the Dixie wildfire – second largest in California history – devasted the area in the summer of 2021, prisoners at CCC were never evacuated but left locked behind bars just a few miles from a fast-moving river of flames. Without water or electricity, they struggled to breathe through thick smoke that engulfed the facility.

State officials have indicated other prisons are also being considered for closure. 

Additional sources: Lassen County Times, Los Angeles Times

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