Valley State Prison continues conversion to men's facility

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comNovember 26, 2012 

— About 40 male prisoners waited on a bus parked in front of a small building inside the Valley State Prison, which recently dropped "for Women" from its title.

Inside the building, 36 female inmates were getting ready to be driven to the Central California Women's Facility, just down the road.

The prison has been bringing in men and transferring out dozens of women since earlier this fall, when a judge cleared the way for the conversion project to move forward.

"It's almost like running two separate prisons," said Ron Davis, acting warden. "You've got the males who are getting accustomed to this environment, and you're transitioning the women out, and having no contact between the two genders."

Earlier this year, the city of Chowchilla unsuccessfully tried to block the conversion with a lawsuit after prison officials declined to do an impact study. It's too early to tell, but concerns persist that families of inmates will relocate to the area and overwhelm local resources.

Meanwhile, the conversion continues. As of late November, the prison held about 850 women and about 800 men.

One of the new inmates, Michael Woods, said he was excited to see grass, something he didn't have at the Sierra Conservation Camp in Jamestown, where he spent the previous four years.

"A change of scenery is always good," said the 40-year-old Oakland native. "And from what we've heard, there's more opportunity here to try to rehabilitate yourself. That's what I'm looking for."

The female inmates seemed less optimistic about the move.

"You hear so many things about across the street," said Vanessa Chavez, 25, who has been at the prison for six years. "Just bringing us together is wrong. I feel like there's going to be a lot of tension and problems."

Prison officials dismissed these concerns, citing misinformation and rumor.

The facility is expected to have about 2,600 male inmates, about 137 percent of design capacity, by the end of next year, according to prison officials.

All the new male inmates are low-risk offenders, many of whom are being moved for their protection, said Lt. Gregory Bergersen, spokesman for the prison.

"The thing that shocked me more than anything is the number of elderly inmates that we've received -- many in wheelchairs, many in walkers, many with canes," he said. "But we're the facility for that. We have a very good medical program, one of the best in the state."

There is a hearing date scheduled for Dec. 7 to determine whether state corrections officials must do an impact study. However, the prison conversion should be complete by the end of January, according to local prison officials.

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

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