Officials insist inmates' needs are being met at Central California Women's Facility

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 29, 2013 

CHOWCHILLA -- As concerns over housing conditions at the Central California Women's Facility outside town draw protest, officials on Monday continued to deny claims that the prison is too packed.

After a Saturday protest by hundreds of prison rights activists outside the facility, corrections officials invited the media to tour the prison Monday.

"In my opinion, there's no overcrowding," said Bart Fortner, CCWF spokesman, while leading the tour. "We're still keeping within the allotted amount of inmates within one cell that's allowed by the state fire marshal."

Several years ago, the prison was at nearly 200 percent of design capacity, housing inmates in gyms and day rooms, said Travis Wright, administrative assistant to the warden. "We'd have 30-some inmates living here with one bathroom. That happened at all the prisons."

Then, in October 2011, the state rolled out its realignment plan under pressure from federal authorities. Many offenders were sent to county jails rather than state prison, and the CCWF's population declined.

However, officials recently converted Valley State Prison, across the street, into a men's facility, sending hundreds of women to the CCWF and significantly increasing its population.

Inmate Alicia Cruz, 26, who's served eight years at the CCWF, said she remembers when conditions were a "disaster" several years ago.

"Right now," she said, "it's a little bit chaotic, not too extreme, but it's getting out of hand."

As of January, the CCWF was the most crowded in the state's 33-facility system with roughly 3,700 inmates in a prison built for 2,004 -- about 187 percent of design capacity, according to corrections officials.

Like almost all inmates at the women's prison, Cruz sleeps in a 348-square-foot room, which includes a sink, a shower and a toilet. The room has four bunk beds.

One of the beds is empty, so she sleeps with six other people in what she calls a "ridiculous" situation. "It effects us mentally."

Her roommate Tracy Smith, 35, who has served more than four years, echoed the concern: "We don't have room to do nothing. Miserable, you're being suffocated. It makes you irritable."

Just outside the dormitory is a 5,632-square-foot day room with televisions. The women also can go walking in a large yard outside the housing unit.

But they are concerned about access to vocational programs and medical care.

Cruz said she has had a difficult time getting dental care at the prison. "It's very poor," she said. "Sometimes it's like three or four months until you get something done."

Since 2011, the state has been under federal court order to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity, a decision largely driven by concerns about access to medical care.

Fortner said prisoners at the CCWF were receiving proper medical attention. "When they submit a request to see a doctor, they have to be seen within 24 hours," he said. "They do get in and get seen."

"The women seem to have more issues just in general as far as medical needs and examinations," added Fortner, who started his career at Folsom State Prison for men. "It does stay quite busy compared to the men's (facilities)."

Corrections officials say the population of the CCWF will come down in coming months.

Officials recently opened the Folsom Women's Facility, a 403-bed prison next to Folsom State Prison. It's expected to be at capacity by spring.

At the same time, as of January, officials said there were about 2,050 inmates at the California Institution for Women in Chino. Built to house 1,398 inmates, Chino is the state's only other women's prison and is at more than 146 percent of design capacity.

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

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