Chowchilla concerned if a prison converted to men's

Officials in Madera County are concerned that one of two women's prisons in Chowchilla may be converted to house men, which they fear could put a strain on local social services.

Chowchilla City Council members discussed the rumored change at their meeting Monday.

A state prison spokeswoman would not confirm Tuesday that a conversion is under consideration but said the prison system is reviewing a number of options for realigning inmate populations.

The preference of Chowchilla city officials is clear: "We don't want a male prison," Mayor David Alexander said.

The Central California Women's Facility, which opened in 1990, and the Valley State Prison for Women, which opened five years later, have been good neighbors and have not created problems for the community, city officials said.

However, housing men at one of the Chowchilla prisons could create greater demands on city services, they said.

City officials said they have heard anecdotally that families of male prisoners tend to move to be near them. That's not as likely for the families of female inmates, they said.

Those families tend to have a greater need for public assistance, they said.

"I think it's fair to say that the average inmate's family is in the lower-income brackets and needs more social and other services," police Chief Jay Varney said.

Providing those services may be beyond the means of Madera County and the city, he said.

Alexander said prison employees are concerned that they will have to retrain, relocate or lose their jobs if one of the Chowchilla prisons is converted to house men.

State prison officials are in the process of determining where to house inmates now that the overall population is being cut.

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to drastically reduced the number of inmates in its chronically overcrowded prisons. The court gave California two years to cut the population to about 110,000 inmates from the current 147,000.

In addition, starting Oct. 1 lower-level criminals will serve their sentences in county jails.

Officials for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will look for ways to comply with the court's ruling and the governor's plan, spokeswoman Dana Toyama said.

"We need to be creative with how we reduce our population," she said.

Toyama stressed that changes aren't imminent in the prison system, adding, "No decisions will be made without community input."