CHOWCHILLA -- The proposed conversion of the Valley State Prison for Women to a men's facility continues to remain in limbo.
Pending a legal challenge brought by the city of Chowchilla against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, a judge granted a temporary halt to the prison conversion.
The state has stopped all conversion activities since the court's injunction was ordered, said Dana Toyama, a department of corrections spokeswoman. "There's been no (male) inmates moved in, and we haven't begun any construction."
The conversion halt was recently extended until the end of the month, when a Contra Costa Superior Court Judge is expected to consider a further extension that could freeze the conversion until the legal challenge is heard later this year.
For months, city officials have raised the alarm about the effects of bringing male inmates into the prison, which is just outside Chowchilla.
"We're concerned," said Chowchilla City Administrator Mark Lewis. "We want the state to comply with the environmental review laws so we have an understanding of what the impacts of the conversion might be on the community."
At the center of the controversy are fears that the families of the male inmates will move into the area and burden local resources.
"It's going to have as much effect on Merced and Madera as it will on Chowchilla, because both Merced and Madera are county seats and it's both the county seats that provide services," Lewis said.
State prison officials insist that families of male and female inmates would relocate at the same rate, and that the conversion is necessary to satisfy a federal court order to reduce prison crowding.
Despite the state's efforts to reassure local officials, the city has continued to demand that an environmental study be conducted to assess the conversion's possible impacts and what, if any, mitigating measures could be taken.
In December, however, prison officials issued a statement denying the need for a review of the project under the California Environmental Quality Act.
The document argued that the project was not subject to the law because the conversion would "simply reorganize inmates" and "not affect the physical environment."
In January, the city of Chowchilla filed legal action in an effort to force corrections officials to conduct an environmental review.
The hearing date for the trial is scheduled for Dec. 7.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.