Calif. city to sue state over plan to close prison

California Correctional Center, which employs over 1,000 people, is slated to close next summer

By Vincent Moleski
The Sacramento Bee
SUSANVILLE, Calif. — Leaders of one Northern California city say they are planning on suing Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration over a proposed California state prison closure next year that would devastate the local economy.

During closed session of a special City Council meeting on Thursday, Susanville's city attorney was authorized to take the state to court over the closure of the California Correctional Center, currently scheduled for June 30, 2022.

The Newsom administration's reasoning behind the planned closure of the prison — which for years has been a hub for inmate firefighting training — was the declining numbers of incarcerated Californians, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in early releases for thousands of inmates.

City and county officials fear that the loss of so many jobs would devastate the city of less than 9,000.
City and county officials fear that the loss of so many jobs would devastate the city of less than 9,000. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/TNS)

In April 2020, there were about 120,000 inmates in California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation custody. As of Wednesday, there were 97,688 people in CDCR custody. In January 2020, the Susanville facility, known as CCC, housed 4,054 inmates. By December, that number had dropped to 2,138. The closure is expected to save the state $122 million annually.

But city and Lassen County officials bristled at the announcement that CCC would close. The prison employs over 1,000 people in a city with a population of less than 9,000, excluding prisoners. State Sen. Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, said at the time that the closure would "devastate the community." Some residents fear that losing such a large employer could mean ripple effects in other local economic sectors.

As a result, homes in Susanville started hitting the market, as more than a quarter of the city's workforce is reliant upon the prison. Jobs with CDCR often pay more than other jobs in rural communities, although the department has said that it will try to help employees affected by the shutdown find work, including potentially transferring them to other facilities. Nearby High Desert State Prison will remain open, but the next nearest CDCR prison is Folsom State Prison. The closure of the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy was announced in 2020, also due to declining CDCR populations.

Lassen County Administrator Richard Egan said he supports the idea of suing the state over the closure, citing what he described as "rank, incompetent public administration" and a process that failed to include the relevant local stakeholders.

"We support anything that brings more exposure to the process of CCC being closed," Egan said. "We think it was done inappropriately."

Egan said that although Lassen County and city officials have inquired as to why or how the state arrived at CCC as the best facility to close, California officials "essentially stonewalled us."

But the process is just one part of the problem, he said. He argued that the decision to close the Susanville prison is bad for the state more broadly, not just the local economy, and pointed out that the Legislative Analyst's Office previously identified other state prisons as prime facilities for closure, not CCC.

In February, the LAO said that San Quentin State Prison, the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad and the California Men's Colony is San Luis Obispo "appear to be strong candidates for closure, primarily because they all have high estimated repair and/or operational costs relative to their inmate capacity."

A 2020 analysis showed that recommended infrastructure fixes at San Quentin State Prison totaled more than $1.6 billion. CCC's recommended projects would cost $503 million, comparatively.

Dan Newton, Susanville's interim city administrator, was also puzzled by the disparity between the LAO's analyses and the state's decision to close CCC, and echoed Egan's frustration with the state's lack of explanation.

He said that multiple requests for clarification have not been answered adequately. One thing the state did tell city officials, according to Newton, is that CCC has had trouble hiring and maintaining medical staff.

"It doesn't make sense to us," Newton said. "We need to understand why this is happening."

The city of Susanville is asking for a comprehensive analysis from the state, detailing how CCC compares with other CDCR facilities and what metrics were used to select it for closure. Newton acknowledged, however, that the potential for massive economic problems in Susanville is not a legal argument.

"But it's something that should be considered," he said. "It's going to have such a profound impact on our community and our city. ... I don't think people would understand living in a larger metropolitan area."

A CDCR statement emailed to The Sacramento Bee acknowledged the "impact in Susanville" CCC's closure would cause, but also emphasized the "great consideration" that went into making that decision.

"Since the announcement, CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison has met with state and local Lassen County officials to answer questions directly. Additionally, CDCR executives attended a recent Board of Supervisors meeting where they also discussed the reasons behind the closure and answered questions from the community and supervisors," the statement said. "Ultimately, the decisions to close Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) in Tracy and CCC in Susanville were driven by reductions in the prison population arising out of various criminal justice reforms, many of which were approved by California voters. ... Prison closures are not unique to Susanville."

CDCR officials noted in the statement that the state's juvenile justice facilities are also scheduled to shutter in 2023. The statement pointed to California penal code language as the basis for CCC's selection, which highlights several key areas of interest.

"The department shall prioritize closure of prisons with relatively high operational costs or costly infrastructure needs compared to inmate capacity, flexible housing assignment capacity, and long-term operational value," the code reads in part. The code also notes that operating costs, workforce impacts, long-term investment and viable solutions to overcrowding issues should be considered as well.

CDCR said it would "minimize or eliminate staffing reductions for impacted classifications. Our efforts include avoiding layoffs for staff as much as possible."
(c)2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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