Public Debate at the Lower Elevations

Letters to the editor of the Siskiyou County Daily News have been quite lively of late. For example, in correspondence published last Tuesday, county resident Bendan Butler unloaded a series of rather breathless disclosures about opponents of a proposal to place a prison at the foot of Mt. Shasta.

One anti-prison leader, Butler declared, "once claimed that she saw a flying saucer the size of Safeway land in Mt. Shasta." Another, he huffed, "used to be an attorney! No more need be said." And a physician fighting the prison, well, Butler's information was that this "so-called doctor" was in fact a radiologist, "using deadly illness to further his political agenda."

The next day the paper published a rebuttal from the doctor in question. Kobi Leder compared Butler to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, suggested that the prison booster was "the one hallucinating, not us," and concluded with a caustic offer to "treat" his accuser to a "barium enema."

"Who knows," Leder advised Butler, "the catharsis just might help you think straight."

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There's nothing like a proposed maximum-security prison to drop public debate to the lowest levels. Typically, it takes a certain amount of economic desperation for a town even to want a prison in the first place. Just as typically, not everyone in that town--or in the town just down the road--will thrill to the prospect of living within the same ZIP code as Charles Manson or decommissioned gang soldiers from L.A. And so it has gone here, in Weed.

The town is named for Abner Weed, the logging tycoon who founded it on the eastern flank of Mt. Shasta. It had a good run as a company town. Decades of furious tree-cutting, however, pretty much depleted the forests, and recently the mills began to shut down. As people moved away and shops closed, leaders of Weed began hunting new industries. They invited something like 300 companies to move here--and didn't get a single bite.

"We thought we could get something glamorous," said Mayor Mel Borcalli. "A prison wasn't our first choice."

In January, though, Gov. Pete Wilson shared his grand new vision for California: prisons. Billions of dollars would be invested in new prisons. Anticipating a $50-million payroll and a stable employer, Weed invited the California Department of Corrections to place a prison here, and the CDC appeared eager to oblige.

Unfortunately for Weed, enthusiasm for the prison was not shared throughout Siskiyou County. "If this prison was such a profitable deal," one Daily News letter writer argued, "Southern California would be wining and dining the CDC. . . . Most of the prisoners come from their area, not ours, so they are dumping it all on us." From nearby towns such as Mt. Shasta and Yreka came questions--about maintaining a rural lifestyle, about the impact on the tourist trade and schools, about the general cut of prison visitors, and about the mountain. Mt. Shasta attracts a steady flow of fine-tuned souls who believe the shimmering mountain contains mystical qualities. The prison, it was said, might create a "negative energy."

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The fight grows more bitter every day. In Weed, they consider their neighbors arrogant mystics, unsympathetic to a working-class town. Conversely, prison opponents see the advocates as misguided fools, mesmerized by false promises. One thing both sides agree upon is this: The dispute already has ripped apart friendships, neighborhoods, towns. And the battle is far from over.

Siskiyou supervisors last week passed up an opportunity to settle the matter with a simple board vote, deciding instead to hold a countywide "advisory" election in November. So proponents and opponents alike quickly began plotting full-bore campaigns. If they are slinging UFOs and enemas in May, imagine what October might bring.

So far, an interesting facet of the conflict has been the absence of outside voices, of what might even be called leadership. Sacramento teems with politicians eager to build more prisons--but not one has the political courage to suggest where. Similarly, most Californians seem to want to lock up more criminals for longer periods of time. Where? Somewhere else.

Incredibly, California has embarked on perhaps the biggest buildup of prisons ever--without even attempting to form a consensus about where they should be placed. Instead, it's left to down-on-their-luck towns such as Weed to volunteer themselves for the duty. And left to their neighbors to challenge the wisdom of putting prisons near treasures like Mt. Shasta. They say up here that the mountain can be a source for inspiration. They will need it.

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