City of Chowchilla to take legal action over prison conversion

The city of Chowchilla said Thursday it plans to file a legal challenge against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation about the state prison system's attempt to convert the Valley State Prison for Women into a men's prison.

"The Chowchilla City Council feels it is imperative to take necessary steps to protect our community and our rural way of life from the state's planned prison conversion," Mayor Janan Hebert said in a news release. "It's unfortunate that we have to file papers in court in order to keep our neighborhoods secure, but CDCR has left us with no other options."

At the heart of the controversy are fears that families of male inmates will relocate to the area at a higher rate than families of female inmates and overwhelm the city's limited public resources. Also, Madera County District Attorney Michael Keitz has voiced concerns that male prisoners would be more violent and thus require his office to prosecute more assault cases and the county to hire more sheriff's deputies.

State prison officials publicly dismissed these fears, and emphasized the need to convert the prison because of a court order to reduce overcrowding.

The city hopes to use legal action to force prison officials to conduct a formal study of the conversion's impact on the city and county under the California Environmental Quality Act.

"By filing court papers today the Chowchilla City Council is taking the necessary action to protect our community," said Isaac Jackson, Chowchilla City Council member. "We understand CDCR must reduce its prison population due to realignment, but it shouldn't be at the expense of the people living in Madera County."

In early December, prison officials issued a notice of exemption stating it wouldn't conduct a study of the conversion under CEQA. In the document, officials argued they were not legally obligated to do so because the conversion would "simply reorganize inmates" and "not affect the physical environment."

Deborah Hysen, deputy director of facility planning, construction and management with the state prison system declined to comment on the motive behind filing the exemption. She said a review could cost the state time and money but that was not the reason prison officials decided to bypass the CEQA review.

"We simply need to run a cost-effective prison system," she said. "We're seeing a decline of our prison population. And so we want to make sure that we are responsive to that decline."

City, county and state officials have expressed irritation over the exemption notice over the weeks leading up to the announcement of legal action. At a recent public meeting held in Madera, state prison leaders tried to calm local authorities but to little avail.

"I've had a chance to review the original (environmental impact report), and it's very clear that the project description says that the facility will house female inmates at all security levels," said state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, "so I don't know how it is the same project when the original project that satisfied CEQA specifically analyzed impacts from housing female inmates."

The city of Chowchilla plans to file a petition for writ of mandate in Madera Superior Court today challenging the state prison system's notice of exemption to CEQA.

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