Advocacy group: California should close 10 prisons as inmate population falls

A new report from Californians United for a Responsible Budget makes the case for closure by 2025

Andrew Sheeler
The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom is making good on his pledge to close at least two state prisons while he's in office, announcing plans over the past year to shut down facilities in Tracy and in Susanville.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which oversees 34 prisons across the state, could go even further. Prison officials are weighing the closure of up to five state prisons, which could save the state $1.5 billion annually.

But that's not far enough, argues the criminal justice reform coalition Californians United for a Responsible Budget. It's urging Newsom and the Legislature to close 10 state prisons by 2025, aiming to undo what it describes as a legacy of biased law enforcement practices that unfairly targeted people of color.

An outer perimeter fence is seen at California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, Calif. The facility is one of 10 identified by an advocacy group for closure by 2025.
An outer perimeter fence is seen at California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, Calif. The facility is one of 10 identified by an advocacy group for closure by 2025. (Bryan M. Carrel/Dreamstime/TNS)

"We are so happy that Gov. Newsom has moved us in this direction of closing prisons," said Amber-Rose Howard, executive director of CURB and an author of the report.

California's prison population has been shrinking over the past decade because of changes in criminal sentencing laws, falling from 144,000 in 2011 to about 120,000 last year.

That number plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic, reaching about 95,000 this month.

Still, California's spending on prisons is expected to hold steady. Newsom's January budget proposal for the next fiscal year calls for a $16 billion in state spending on corrections.

The advocacy group used five criteria in deciding which prisons to call for being shut down: Unsafe health conditions, overcrowding, the cost of incarceration, location of prison and distance from loved ones and highest number of homicides and suicides.

It received feedback from about 2,000 formerly incarcerated people and their family members when shaping the report who turned in surveys about prison conditions.

Here are the 10 facilities it says the state should move to shut down:

  • Avenal State Prison
  • California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi
  • California Medical Facility in Vacaville
  • California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo
  • California Rehabilitation Center in Norco
  • California State Prison Los Angeles County
  • California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran
  • Kern Valley State Prison in Delano
  • North Kern State Prison in Delano
  • Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga

The group argues the state can quickly release 50,000 inmates in the interest of getting them out of prisons during the coronavirus pandemic.

It says further population reductions are possible if the Legislature passes bills that would limit the use of life without parole, allow incarcerated people to challenge racially motivated sentences and and make recent sentencing enhancement reform laws retroactive for all people currently incarcerated.

"I think there's absolutely an appetite (for criminal justice reform in the Legislature). And we've seen that appetite grow," Howard said.
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