Texas recently made the headlines for doing something it has never done since gaining statehood in 1845: it closed a prison. Now, it seems California could follow suit.
Here’s why. The governor’s realignment plan changes the criminal code so that non-violent, non-serious offenders (who also cannot be sex offenders) will no longer serve their sentences in state prison. Instead, they’ll do their time at the county level–which means in county jail, on home detention, and/or in some sort of community program in their home counties. A large percentage of the women’s prison population qualifies for realignment, which means over the next three years, California’s three women’s prisons will lose an estimated one third to one half of their population. If all goes according to plan, and California loses 3,000 to 5,000 women prisoners, the state will have to decide what to do with one or two of its facilities.
Tim Silard, president of the Rosenberg Foundation says this is a “watershed moment” for California–and that the state would best be served by closing prisons down when and if space opens up.
“California has more than thirty adult prisons across the state and spends enormous amounts of money to keep those prisons going,” Silard says. If two are closed down, Silard says the state could save $300 million a year in operating costs. Moreover, he says, it’s a prime opportunity to demonstrate that the public has moved on from the incarceration boom of the past couple of decades. Criminal justice may have once been the “third rail” in California politics, with no politician willing to question “tough on crime” policies, but now, “the public is enormously supportive of saving money in our prison system and doing business differently,” Silard says.
Recently, women have taken over at the fastest growing prison population in the country and in the state. California currently has one of the largest populations of women prisoners in the world.
Two of the state’s three women’s facilities are located near the Central Valley town of Chowchilla. As rumors have spread of a possible closure, the town has begun worrying about the impact shutting a prison could have on the local economy. The two local women’s prisons employ about 1,000 workers each.
As population estimates pour in, CDCR Spokesperson Dana Toyama says that the department is looking at all options, including converting one or two of the women’s prisons into men’s facilities. “If there isn’t the population, you need to use your resources,” Tomaya said. “We are fully aware of the sensitivity of the issue,” she said, and ultimately, the department would prefer to use the facility than shutter it. Nevertheless, closure remains a distinct possibility–and local officials in Chowchilla seem reluctant to go along with conversion to housing men.
Not including California, 13 states around the country either have recently closed or are in the process of closing state prisons. The process has been particularly difficult in New York State, which like California, has a strong correctional officers union and a swath of rural towns with economies dependent on prisons. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has offered towns with shuttering prisons economic development assistance grants to re-make their local economies.
If California closes a prison, or even several prisons, rural communities could be hit hard.
Silard says that it’s important to make sure California communities aren’t suffering. But, he says, “we know that taking that same $300 million and investing it in other areas of our state budget can and will produce far more jobs than a prison does.”