Impact of shift at Chowchilla prison debated

At meeting, state insists male inmates won't cause trouble in Chowchilla, area.

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 3, 2012 

Corrections officials tried to appease Chowchilla and Madera County leaders Tuesday during a special meeting to discuss the possible impact from the conversion of Valley State Prison for Women to a men's facility.

The meeting came less than a week before the filing deadline for legal challenges to a self-granted California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation exemption allowing the department to bypass an impact study of the conversion.

Local officials repeatedly have demanded that the state prison system do an impact analysis, accusing state prison officials of violating the California Environmental Quality Act.

"We believe there will be impacts to our community," said David Rogers, a Madera County supervisor. "This experiment cannot and should not be born by the city of Chowchilla and the county of Madera without adequate compensation."

Deborah Hysen, deputy director of facility planning, construction and management for the state prison system, strongly disagreed.

"We looked very carefully at CEQA and believe very firmly that it's not a project under CEQA," she said. "To be thorough, we did file a notice of exemption. We feel we've made a good decision and it's supported by our findings."

Though local officials have been fiery with their words, none of the city, county or state officials in attendance at the meeting would say if their respective bodies planned to take legal action against the department of corrections concerning the exemption.

As local leaders weigh their options, prison officials used the meeting to make the case a lawsuit isn't necessary.

Specifically, prison officials tried to ease concerns over the idea a male prison population would be accompanied by an influx of families to Chowchilla that would overwhelm social services and tax law enforcement resources.

Hysen said families relocate for male and female prison populations at roughly the same rate, according to data collected by the state prison system.

"Inmate family relocation -- we don't believe there will be a significant impact when adult males go into this prison," she said.

That was little comfort to Rogers, who said even a relatively small influx of families could have an "enormous impact" on Chowchilla, a city of fewer than 20,000 people.

Whether legal action is taken or not, Rogers and other local officials have vowed to continue to put political pressure on state prison officials to mitigate any impacts that result from the conversion.

"I'm very confident that at some point CDCR will need the assistance of the county, the city and the agencies," said state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, who attended Tuesday's meeting. "So I strongly advise CDCR to take the time to ensure those relationships are in the spirit of cooperation. This is a give-and-take relationship."

According to state prison officials, if the conversion continues as planned, it would take place over the next 18 months, and correctional officers would see few, if any, layoffs.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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