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Calif. town sued to keep prison open, but judge rules Gov. can shut it down

California Correctional Center in Susanville has remained open because the town sued, saying they face economic devastation if they lose more than 1,000 prison jobs

California Correctional Center

SUSANVILLE, CA - JUNE 08: California Correctional Center, is a minimum-security state prison, in Northern California on Tuesday, June 8, 2021 in Susanville, CA. The town of Susanville and how they are dealing with the closure of the California Correctional Center, a state prison, that has become their economic lifeline. (Photo by Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times via MCT)

Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times

By Hailey Branson-Potts
Los Angeles Times

SUSANVILLE, Calif. - The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation may immediately resume shutting down a prison in Northern California, a judge ruled this week, dismissing a lawsuit by a rural town that sought to stop the closure.

The state was supposed to close the California Correctional Center in Susanville by this June.

But it has remained open because the town — where local officials say they face economic devastation if they lose more than 1,000 prison jobs — sued the state last year, and a Lassen County judge issued a preliminary injunction halting the closure while the case moved through the court.

In a ruling issued Wednesday in Lassen County Superior Court, Visiting Judge Robert F. Moody dissolved the injunction.

“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 continue to maintain all or our expensive prisons,” Moody wrote.

“The wisdom of such legislative or political policies are not and have never been the province of the courts.”

The state announced the prison’s closure in April 2021, causing widespread panic in long-shrinking Susanville, the only incorporated city in Lassen County.

More than 45% of employment in Susanville is at the California Correctional Center and the adjacent High Desert State Prison, local officials told The Times.

In its lawsuit, Susanville argued that when the state announced the prison’s closure, it violated the California Environmental Quality Act because it had not conducted the proper reviews of the shutdown’s impact on the town. The state began the environmental impact review process in January.

But tucked into this year’s budget — which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed June 30 — was a trailer bill that says California law exempts the closure of state prisons and juvenile facilities from review under the state’s environmental law.

The bill says the California Correctional Center must close by June 30, 2023.

In his ruling, Moody said that while the trailer bill was legal, it was the kind of legislative maneuver that has “an unpleasant odor about them, to be sure.”

“And ultimately,” he wrote, “the question of the public’s satisfaction or lack of it as to all these matters is electoral, not judicial.”

In a statement Thursday, Susanville City Administrator Dan Newton said the City Council will be briefed by the city attorney and will hold a special meeting as early as Monday to determine the next steps.

“The city’s primary concern is for CCC employees and their families,” Newton said.

Moody’s decision was celebrated by those who say closing the 59-year-old California Correctional Center — which needs millions of dollars in repairs — is the morally and fiscally responsible thing to do.

“Throughout this entire litigation, the prisoners inside CCC have been treated either as revenue or as irrelevant,” Shakeer Rahman, a Los Angeles-based attorney who filed an amicus brief signed by about 100 men incarcerated at the prison, said in a statement.

Advocates “see the decision in this case as a decisive victory,” the statement said.

In the amicus brief filed this summer in support of the closure, the incarcerated men said the prison is crumbling.

Rain water pours through the ceilings, they wrote, and some prisoners resorted to using soap to seal leaks in their cells. Toilets, they said, don’t flush and are filled with green algae.

And when the Dixie fire — the second-largest wildfire in California history — burned last summer a few miles outside town, the men were not moved from the facility, even as electricity and water were shut off, smoke filled their cells, and they had to cover their faces with wet towels to breathe, they wrote.

Moody declined to consider the amicus brief.

As California’s incarcerated population declines, other prisons will be considered for closure, state officials have said.

The Deuel Vocational Institution in the San Joaquin Valley city of Tracy closed last September. In this year’s budget, the Newsom administration said it was “committed to right-sizing California’s prison system to reflect the needs of the state” and could close three more prisons, in addition to the California Correctional Center, by 2025.

Brian Kaneda, deputy director of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a coalition of groups dedicated to reducing incarceration in the state, said in a statement that “Newsom has shown a lot of leadership, but now more than ever the state needs a concrete plan to close prisons included in the January 2023-24 proposed budget.”

“Decisions about which prisons to close next need to happen soon,” he said.