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'We Need Care, Not Cages': California Criminal Justice Reformers Applaud Planned Closure of 2 State Prisons

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A white building behind high security fencing with desert in the foreground and a blue sky above.
A view of the California City Correctional Facility in Kern County, from May 2014. (Wikipedia)

This story was updated on Wednesday, Dec. 14, to include comments from a representative of CoreCivic, a private-prison management company.

Advocates for criminal justice reform are applauding California's recently announced plans to close two more of its state prisons.

California City Correctional Facility in Kern County and Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Riverside County, which together currently house nearly 4,000 incarcerated people, are slated to be shuttered by 2024 and 2025 respectively, along with the closure of certain facilities in six other prisons, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced Tuesday.

The state's most recent prison downsizing plans follow last year's closure of Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy.

"Crime’s going down, prison populations are down, but prison spending has steadily gone up," Jay Jordan, CEO of Alliance for Safety and Justice, a criminal justice reform advocacy group, told KQED, following the state's announcement. "I mean, we’re spending $14 billion a year on prisons ... prisons that were created in the '40s and '30s ... literally throwing money over a crumbling infrastructure that does not do what it needs to do to keep us safe."

California City Correctional Facility, one of the prisons on the chopping block, is California's last privately owned prison, which CDCR leases from CoreCivic for $32 million a year.

"I mean, you're talking about a private prison, let's just get that into perspective," said Jordan, noting that taxpayers are overwhelmingly against private prisons. “In America, there should not be an incentive for profit to lock people up, it should be in the interest of public safety. So closing down a for-profit prison is something that is long overdue. All states are doing it. This is something that's commonplace."

CoreCivic spokesperson Ryan Gustin responded to Jordan’s comments by pointing out that the California City Correctional Facility, which it leases to the state, is fully staffed and operated by unionized CDCR employees and that CoreCivic has no role in the daily operations of the facility. He also noted that the prison is a much more modern facility than those described by Jordan.

"It was built in 1999, and since we began leasing the facility to CDCR in 2013, we have continually invested in facility enhancements to ensure the [California City Correctional Facility] is operating at its optimum performance," Gustin wrote in an email.

Gustin also challenged Jordan's contention that taxpayers are overwhelmingly against private prisons, and said it was "demonstrably false" to claim that most states were moving to close them down.

"Many states continue to work with companies like ours because they face the same challenges California did for years, such as overcrowding and aging infrastructure," he said.

More prison closures in California may soon follow. A budget blueprint (PDF) released Wednesday by state Assembly Budget Committee Chair Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) recommends that three more prisons be closed by 2025, "saving the state up to $500 million annually and [avoiding] billions in capital expenses."

Those incarcerated at the two prisons planned for closure will be relocated to other facilities "based on their housing, custody and rehabilitative needs," according to CDCR.

But Jordan called that plan "vague," and urged the department to prioritize relocating people to prisons closer to where they come from.

"We know when people are closer to home and get closer to their family, that reduces recidivism," he said. "I [also] applaud the efforts of people going to places where they can get a trade, so when they get out, they can get a job that reduces recidivism. I applaud efforts of sending people to places where they can be safe, where they're not getting into trouble. ... I'm really curious and interested in how they facilitate this process."

Jordan says California has been on the wrong track since the 1980s, when it "passed tough-on-crime, incarceration-first policies ... that bloated the prison population." The result of those harsh sentencing policies was that California’s prison population swelled to nearly double its designed capacity, reaching 143,000 by 2011, with almost every one of the state's 34 prisons operated by the CDCR being significantly above capacity.

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But, Jordan noted, California's prison population has decreased markedly over the last decade — reduced by over 30,000 people — the result of widespread criminal justice reform efforts and a 2011 Supreme Court order to significantly reduce overcrowding — in which justices found that the state's prison conditions constituted cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

"California took action and we passed Proposition 36, AB 109, and Prop. 57, Prop. 47," Jordan said, referring to a series of measures and bills that "would relieve the pressure."

"These bills weren't a get-out-of-jail-free card. [They] were simply saying, 'If you steal a bike or if you're addicted to drugs, you shouldn't go to prison.' We need care, not cages."

As a result, Jordan says California has passed what he calls "commonsense pro-safety policies" over the past decade that not only have relieved the pressure off prisons but that also have enabled incarcerated people to learn trades and get an education, which he says has contributed greatly to reducing recidivism and enabling reintegration.

"That's why we saw crime rates dwindling down," he added. "For the most part in the last decade, pro-safety and smart-justice policies not only decreased prison populations, but they also decreased crime rates as well."

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