Chowchilla women's prison squeezed

Rank as state's most-crowded facility sparks protests

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 8, 2013 

— After a brief reprieve from the bloated conditions that plagued the state's prison system for years, the Central California Women's Facility outside Chowchilla has become the most crowded prison in the state.

As of Dec. 26, the facility housed 3,608 inmates, according to corrections officials. Designed for 2,004 beds, officials said, the state prison is at more than 180 percent of intended capacity.

Officials said the next most crowded prison is Avenal State Prison, also in the Central Valley, at 171 percent of design capacity.

More than a dozen groups from around the state -- including the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and Californians United for a Responsible Budget -- have organized a rally to protest the conditions.

"These cells were set up for two to four people max, and they're up to eight people again," said Colby Lenz, campaign coordinator for the coalition. "They're not enough resources in terms of hygiene. They're not getting cleaning supplies or tampons. It's a public health disaster."

The protest will be held at 3 p.m. Jan. 26 in front of Valley State Prison outside Chowchilla.

However, corrections officials dismissed the groups' concerns.

"We're not overcrowded," said Dana Simas, a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman. "No inmate is being housed in nontraditional beds. We've been far more overcrowded than where we are now."

"At (the Central California Women's Facility), they have a brand new skilled nursing facility," she added. "So if there's any medical issues that arise, they're getting the medical attention they require."

The prison's population recently ballooned after Valley State Prison, across the street, began conversion into a facility for male inmates.

Hundreds of female inmates were transferred to the two remaining women's prisons -- the Central California Women's Facility and the California Institution for Women, outside Corona in Southern California.

Corrections officials said the move was necessary to ease overcrowding at prisons for men.

Under a decision from a federal three-judge panel, the state must reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity by June 26 -- a court order largely driven by concerns about medical care access. California's prison system stands at 149.8 percent of design capacity, according to corrections officials.

But the population cap refers to the system's 33 adult facilities collectively. Under the ruling, it doesn't matter how packed any one prison is, as long as the average population of all facilities remains within the limit.

This allows prison officials some leeway when trying to house a shifting population with varying security needs, according to corrections officials.

Advocates say the state is using the technicality unfairly.

"We're not going to allow them to get away with overcrowding women in order for them to get their overall number down," Lenz said. "That's gender discrimination and it's unconstitutional."

The conditions at the Central California Women's Facility will ease when a facility for 408 women opens in Folsom in two weeks, prison officials said.

Meanwhile, corrections officials said, Valley State Prison still has 312 women waiting to be transferred out.

Officials turned in a plan Monday outlining a strategy to reduce the state's prison population.

Considering upgrades to the prison's medical system, the state could try to renegotiate the terms of the court order, Simas said.

"Because we've decreased our population levels and increased our health care, we might ask to operate at a different level of design capacity," she said.

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


BY THE NUMBERS

Central California Women's Facility at a glance, according to state corrections data:

As of Dec. 26, the facility was holding 3,608 female inmates with a design capacity of 2,004 beds.

The prison is at more than 180 percent of design capacity -- the highest of any prison in California.

The Central California Women's Facility was opened in October 1990.

The prison covers 640 acres outside Chowchilla.

There are about 5,813 women in the California prison system.

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