October 2, 2012

Chowchilla's prison switch allowed to move forward

According to a judicial ruling Tuesday, state prison officials can begin conversion of the Valley State Prison for Women into a men's facility.

"We are moving forward with the conversion," said Dana Toyama, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections. "While I don't have an exact timeline, it should be soon."

Under a previous ruling, a stay of conversion was granted pending a legal challenge to the project brought by the city of Chowchilla.

However, a judge in Contra Costa Superior Court ruled that the need to ease overcrowding in the California prison system outweighed the city's immediate concerns.

"We were hoping for a better decision," said Chowchilla City Manager Mark Lewis. "But the city did the right thing by the community, and we'll do the best we can going forward. It's pretty clear in the court's mind that there are bigger issues at play."

Since the Department of Corrections announced the conversion plan late last year, city officials and local residents have voiced concerns about relocating male inmates to the prison.

The city argued that prison officials hadn't properly evaluated the impact families relocating to live near male inmates would have on the area.

The conversion likely will result in an increased burden on local and regional public services, said Madera County Supervisor David Rogers, who represents District 2, which includes Chowchilla.

"I've been told by prison guards that I've interviewed that some of these gentlemen have three or four women that they've had children with that will follow them here," he said. "It's a problem that we're going to have to deal with financially at a time when we have no resources to deal with it."

Prison officials attempted to reassure the city that the impacts would be no more significant that those associated with female prisoners.

However, after Corrections declined to perform a California Environmental Quality Act review to evaluate the project's potential impact on local resources, the city filed legal action.

The hearing date to determine whether the department must conduct an environmental review is scheduled for Dec. 7.

"This is a quiet rural community with a history of being a quiet, peace-loving community with a low crime rate," Rogers said. "I'm afraid with the change in the situation that that's going to change."

The 1,738 inmates at Valley State Prison for Women will be relocated to one of the two other California women's prisons, and possibly a soon-to-be-reopened 400-capacity, low-security women's prison in Folsom, according to prison officials.

The converted Valley State Prison for Women will continue to employ about 1,000 people, and likely will house about 2,000 male inmates, according to state officials.

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

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