California Department of Corrections: Convert Chowchilla prison or face closure

The message from representatives with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) was loud and clear — convert it or close it.

The opposition from city and county officials was just as clear.

Representatives from CDCR met with strong opposition at the prospect of converting one of the state's two women's prisons in Chowchilla into a men's facility.

Officials from the city of Madera, Madera Police Department, Madera County, Madera County Sheriff's Department, Chowchilla Police Department, Madera County Economic Development Commission, Chowchilla Chamber and city of Chowchilla gathered Aug. 1 to voice their concerns.

Madera County Supervisor District 2 David Rogers led the meeting. Rogers said the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the state's intention to convert one of the two women's facilities in Chowchilla into a men's facility.

Terri McDonald, director of adult institutions at CDCR, explained AB 109 and AB 118, new legislation that dictates realignment in the state which places low-level offenders in the jurisdiction of local authorities as opposed to sending them to state prisons or parole. McDonald said the realignment goes into effect Oct. 1. She noted the populations with the greatest impact that stay at the local level are women, parole violators and low-level male offenders.

"That is essentially who won't be coming to state prison," McDonald stated.

To deal with the reduced population, McDonald said the state will have to cancel contracts with community correctional facilities and to repurpose a female facility. She noted that one year after realignment goes into effect, there will be about 3,000 fewer female inmates in custody, which is basically an entire female facility.

Deborah Hysen, director of facility, planning and construction for CDCR, said there were three women's facilities in the state — California Institution for Women (CIW) in Chino, Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) and Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW), both in Chowchilla.

VSPW and CCWF were built to house roughly 2,000 inmates a piece. Currently and for quite some time they have housed some 4,000 inmates at each facility.

According to Hysen, the facility in Chino was discounted because it lacks many of the features it needs to house males and it would cost several million dollars to convert.

Hysen said that after looking at each of Chowchilla prison sites, it was decided to focus on Valley State Prison for Women because it would be the easiest and most cost-effective prison to convert to a men's facility, costing about $50,000.

McDonald addressed the number of staff at Chowchilla's prisons. "There are nearly 1,000 staff at each facility," she said. She added that with the reduction in prison population, state officials are looking at reducing around 6,000 state positions.

Chowchilla City Administrator Mark Lewis said, "As I understand it at the time when the state built these facilities there was an agreement between the county and the state they would be women's only facilities."

McDonald replied, "The reality of it is there aren't enough women to put in it."

Lewis asked, "How do you change it when you had an agreement without having some public review and process of the conversion?" Lewis questioned the environmental impact review (EIR).

Hysen said her team would be looking at the EIR and CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act).

She reminded people that "we recognize that the jobs are important in communities right now and there are roughly 1,100 staff that work at each of these facilities. It is our hope that rather than close the facility, because really that is a true option, what we need to do is to develop a strategy to not lose staff but to convert the facility."

She also noted there were about 200 staff members at the prisons who live in Chowchilla.

McDonald said that decades ago state officials couldn't have foreseen prison overcrowding and a court order to reduce the prison population. "You can't predict crime trends," she said.

Rogers said that in the 1980s state representatives were adamant and promised more than once that the prisons would be women's facilities only.

Rogers talked about the impact of having a men's prison compared to a female facility. He discussed the economic impact of having a men's facility on the community.

He noted that families tend to follow male inmates, which affects social services, schools and crime.

"This was a promise made to us. You are asking us to take a hit for the whole state of California," Rogers said.

Rogers commended CCWF and VSPW for being good partners to the community. "I don't believe this community is going to take this lying down," Rogers said. "This is no small change, and there is going to be major response from the community."

Hysen's statistics differed from Rogers.

McDonald said, "The reality of it is without the conversion, it is a facility closed."

Chowchilla Elementary School Superintendent Dr. Charles Martin said, "The conversation I am hearing is that it is a done deal and we are just going through the formalities."

Martin talked about studies that said it was fairly clear that men don't follow the women, but the women and families do follow the men. Martin talked about his concerns about the impact on schools.

Martin also said he felt there would be a huge backlash in the community over the conversion.

Bobby Kahn of the Madera County Economic Development Commission talked about the negative impact on development in the county.

"The state of California owes this community more mitigating factors than just saying this is the situation, the way the state is today, and Chowchilla and Madera County, you are it."

McDonald said, "We want to make this seamless and painless for everyone in the community." She again made it clear that without a conversion, the facility would be closed.

Said Rogers at the end of the meeting: "I hope you will listen to the community."