New Prisons No Panacea for Ills of Rural California : Corrections: They bring jobs, but also more demand for government services. Still, many places want one.


They really liked the first one here, a minimum-security state prison that housed about 1,600 inmates soon after it was built in 1963, a low-slung facility that resembled a boarding school and brought high-paying jobs to a remote town reeling from a downturn in the lumber industry.

But some began to have misgivings when the California Correctional Center more than doubled in size with the 1987 addition of a higher-security complex to house a nastier breed of felon--more than 2,000 rapists, kidnapers and other violent offenders, held behind razor wire in two-man cells with rifles trained upon them 24 hours a day.

Today, a new Susanville prison races toward completion--a high-tech, maximum-security facility ringed with an electrified fence to thwart escapes. At capacity, the new facility will bring the city’s inmate population close to 10,000. When this second prison opens next August, more people will be living behind bars than outside them in this eastern Sierra ranching town.

Here in the Honey Lake Valley, not everyone is pleased. Even without a second prison, money is so tight that in 1991 the Board of Supervisors asked the state Legislature to dissolve rural Lassen County. At the time, consideration was given to becoming part of Nevada; most county officials keep tiny Nevada flags--navy-and-gold reminders of grim times.

“The original prison probably took us out of a subsistence-type existence,” says Lyle Lough, a longtime resident and Lassen County supervisor whose district includes the prisons. “The second prison will probably push a lot of us back to it.”


Since 1984, California has built 16 new prisons largely in rural communities throughout the state, hardscrabble towns with crippled economies searching for a way to bankroll libraries, woo Wal-Marts, pay for police. With the state’s “three strikes” legislation signed in March, up to 25 more state prisons will be built by the year 2000, facilities that cost about $200 million to construct and promise between 800 and 1,200 permanent jobs on completion.

While locating a prison is a delicate operation, the state Department of Corrections has no lack of suitors. And the short list for new prison construction shows several main trends for the state. Of the seven likely sites picked so far, three are in Central California; four are in rural areas; five have some sort of correctional facility already and want another one.

Why would a city pray for even one prison, a development often considered a LULU--or Locally Unwanted Land Use? “Jobs. It’s a one-word answer,” says Mary Scarpa, mayor pro tem of always-a-bridesmaid Adelanto, a Southern California city that has courted a correctional facility for 15 years to no avail.

But, as Susanville could teach Adelanto, prisons are no panacea for the ills of rural California. Along with jobs they bring stress: potential impacts on schools and roads, courts and cops, property values and public pride. They bring money, but they cost money too.

A quarter of all cities that now contain a state prison have a median family income below the national poverty line. This grim statistic says two things: Like Adelanto, it is often the poorest of cities that want a prison. And, as Susanville can testify, having a state prison does not in itself guarantee a leg up from poverty.

Still, since the mid-1980s, when money began to tighten and rural America suffered an exodus of jobs and residents, community opposition to prisons has dropped dramatically. In 1984, 23 U.S. correctional departments reported local opposition to prison construction, according to a 1988 national study; four years later, that number had dropped to five, and 24 reported only community support.

The reason, says Ernie Van Sant, chief of the California Corrections Department’s construction support branch, is entirely economic. “California towns see a prison as improving their economy or offsetting other losses,” he says. “We’re not an industrial developer. We don’t use a lot of chemicals. We’re somewhat recession-proof.”

And most studies show that, while prisons have a strong emotional impact on a community, they do not do the two things that most residents fear: raise crime rates and lower property values.

A 1985 report by the California Senate Office of Research matched seven prison cities with 15 non-prison cities that had similar demographics. It concluded that “crime rates tend to be lower in those cities affiliated with a prison than in similar cities. . . . In 11 of the 15 cities that matched prison cities, property values actually increased at a slower rate than in those cities with prisons.”

A study for the National Institute of Corrections, which likened siting prisons in modern times to finding homes for leper colonies in earlier eras, looked at seven correctional centers across the country. It found “positive effects on the local economy and no negative effects on property values, public safety and the quality of life.”

When it comes to the economic benefits of a prison on a community, the bare figures are impressive: A medium-maximum security prison costs more than $280 million to build, creating more than 900 temporary construction jobs in the process, according to the state Corrections Department.

If a prison is filled to its euphemistic “design capacity"--the number of inmates actually intended for the facility rather than the overblown number usually housed there--it creates 800 permanent jobs. If a prison is filled to the more common level of about 200%, that number jumps to 1,200 jobs.

In addition, once a prison is constructed, it generates 400 to 600 jobs in the community beyond those created through building and staffing the facility, according to the Corrections Department. Most of those jobs are typically in the food service and retail industries.

Susanville officials generally agree with the state’s estimates, but they say the jobs at the prison itself are the biggest boon to their city.

“Where else in Susanville are you going to make $3,000 a month with a high school diploma?” asks Dave Foster, chairman of the mathematics and science department at Lassen College and a former Susanville mayor. “It’s allowed a lot of Susanville kids to stay here. This is our industry. Maybe that’s OK.”

These jobs pay good money, an average of $41,000 a year, according to corrections officials. You probably could not buy a house on that kind of salary in Los Angeles County. But in Southern California’s High Desert, you can live comfortably on such an income.

“It creates an economy,” says Scarpa, mayor pro tem of Adelanto, which is still lobbying for a state prison after years of rejection. “The desert always has been notorious for not making jobs.”

Scarpa’s gritty city is No. 1 in the state if you’re going by alphabetical order; it is No. 456 out of 466 if you’re looking at median family income. That income figure in Adelanto was $18,405 in 1989, the most recent year for which statistics were available; the national poverty level for a family of four is $4,500 less.

Adelanto, locals are fond of saying, is the little town that would: It would take just about any industry that would locate within its 52 dusty square miles, a place where Joshua trees outnumber people, where Soldier of Fortune is easier to find than Time magazine, where the only land use residents opposed in recent years was a shelter for the mentally ill homeless.

Scarpa is proud to list the businesses for which Adelanto was perhaps the only suitor: There’s the Intermountain Power Project, a thicket of high-power lines that helps to light the San Fernando Valley. The Hi-Desert Casino came in 20 years ago, long before the statewide rush to gaming.

“Most people don’t want big trucking industries,” Scarpa says. “They tear up the roads and create air pollution. We have three to four large trucking industries which we’re very proud of and are good neighbors.”

The city emblem shows a “hypersonic” jet and a high-speed train, two projects that bring a gleam to city officials’ eyes; the city slogan prematurely boasts “High Desert International Adelanto, CA.” But the proposed international airport, designed for jets faster than the Concorde, is on the back burner; a 300-m.p.h. super-speed train to link Anaheim and Las Vegas has suffered the same fate.

Adelanto does have a contract prison, one of seven such facilities statewide. Although it houses 428 short-term felons for drug rehabilitation, it is run by the city and is a far cry from the cash cow that a full-scale state prison is.

On the good side, its inmates cannot have committed violent crimes. Says Warden Buford Lee Cribb of his handpicked charges, who are mostly in for committing crimes to support drug habits: “The (guard) captain refers to them as the cream of the crap.”

On the bad side, the facility has 10% of the staff of a full state prison, and the salaries earned by its city employees “are not comparable to state salaries,” Cribb says. “And probably only 10% of our staff live in Adelanto. I live in Hesperia.” So it is nice, this squeaky-clean, 3-year-old facility, but not nearly enough for little Adelanto, which continues to lobby the Corrections Department.

But would a full-scale state prison solve these problems? Hanford real estate developer Walt Miller, who hoped to profit from new prison construction by building apartments for guard and inmate families, would probably say no.

Based on Corrections Department projections, Miller built 185 apartments in Corcoran, 150 in Avenal and 280 in Crescent City--about 10% of what the state predicted the prison-fueled housing needs there would be. However, few renters moved in, and Miller ended up going bankrupt in 1992.

“None of them worked out,” said Dwight Long, who was hired by Miller to handle his bankruptcy reorganization. Entrepreneurs and town leaders anticipated an economic bonanza from the prisons, Long said, but those hopes turned out to be “unrealistic.”

Not all prayers of prison prosperity are as unrealistic as those encountered by Miller. Back in the 1950s, the Lassen County town of Westwood just east of Susanville was home to one of the biggest sawmills in the world, located in the heart of the prime growing zone for Ponderosa pine. It was a century after the area’s brief gold rush, and lumbering was a mainstay of Lassen County. Then, in 1955, the sawmill closed.

“The whole area was in an economic decline,” recalls Fred Money, tax man, realtor and current vice president of the Lassen County Board of Realtors, a Susanville old-timer who moved here in 1958. The prison, he recalls, was a “political gift” when it opened in 1963. “They wanted anything to boost the economy in those days.”

Then came the 1970s, when a drop in the number of inmates nearly closed the Susanville prison. To this day, 20-year-old newspaper clippings hang in the correctional center’s lobby chronicling the region’s battle to “Save Our Center”: “Susanville--The Only City in California That Wants Its Prison.” And finally, “Joy Comes to Susanville: Prison Employing 270 Will Stay Open.”

The prison grew in 1987, with an expansion that largely proved unpopular because it raised security at the facility from so-called Level I-II to Level III to cope with the heightened violence of its new inmates. The higher the prison’s security level, the more staffing is necessary, the greater impact on a community.

“I don’t care how many people say it didn’t happen; you began to see outside influences,” insists Lough of the Board of Supervisors. “There’s an increase in stress in the communities. There’s an increase in inmate families.”

In the late 1980s, with a backdrop of increasing controversy, the Susanville City Council and the Lassen County Board of Supervisors approved the addition of another Level I-II prison to the city. But the bond measure to pay for it was voted down and the idea languished.

Then in 1992, says the Corrections Department’s Van Sant, a selected group of Lassen County citizens approached the department again about building the prison.

After a divisive campaign that turned friends and family members against each other, the voters of Lassen County approved a prison--a Level I-II facility as described in the environmental impact report.

“The next thing we know, they were building a Level III-IV prison here,” Lough says, without doing a new environmental report. “We felt betrayed.”

Van Sant calls the turn of events “not a shining example” of Corrections Department behavior. “It would have been nicer to have a resolution from the city and the Board of Supervisors . . . to help not get bruised feelings that the state unilaterally did that to them,” he says.

The bruised feelings, however, remain. Jay Dow, a Lassen County rancher and member of a local school board, is still bitter about the prison under construction today. “I’m not critical of our current prison,” he says. “It’s the way the (Corrections Department) comes in to site prisons. They’re a P.R. firm and they act like it, and it appalled me.”

Although the prison has yet to be completed, its effects are already being felt. The Shaffer Union School District grew by the equivalent of 31 students last year when construction started. That would not be much for the Los Angeles Unified School District, but when you have one school and 460 students, the impact is unmistakable.

A 160-unit mobile home park is scheduled to open in one corner of the Shaffer district in April, four months before the prison, adding nearly 120 students at conservative estimates. A 200-unit housing tract is planned in the next year or two; that’s about 150 more students.

The state has agreed to give the county’s schools $1.98 million in onetime mitigation fees--the first county ever to receive such assistance. But it costs $4 million to build a single school. The $1.98 million would not even reach the 50% level required for the state to pitch in matching funds for that solitary campus, and there are six school districts in Lassen County, all feeling some impact.

When Dave Urbanac came to Lassen County in 1986 as superintendent-principal of tiny Johnstonville School District, his one-school operation had 185 students. Today, there are 260. During his tenure, average class size has grown from 22 to about 27.

About 225 new housing units are planned for his district as a direct result of the new prison. Urbanac is trying to negotiate developers’ fees to be tacked onto the unbuilt homes to help offset the cost of a new school. With that money, about $800,000 if the developers agree, he still won’t have enough to build a new campus.

“Anytime we’ve had money left over at the end of the year, we’ve been setting it aside for future building,” Urbanac says. “It’s been earmarked for the kids, but it will probably go to building.”

Classroom space aside, the prisons have other impacts on school districts. On the one hand, work crews from the existing low-medium security Susanville facility spend summers cleaning up the county’s schools. On the other, the children of inmates--and both Johnstonville and Shaffer have them in class--challenge the districts’ abilities in more ways than just classroom space.

Of Shaffer’s 460 charges, 76 have one or more parents working at the prison and 38 have a father or stepfather behind bars there, says Donald J. Carter, Shaffer’s superintendent-principal.

“The students (of inmate families) are all very high-risk,” Carter says. “They come from single-parent homes. They’re latchkey kids, often on (Aid to Families With Dependent Children). . . . It’s very obvious they’re from a whole different area. It creates societal conflicts. The child does not fit in.”

Like the schools, Lassen County has received a onetime payment of $1.98 million from the state to compensate for the prison under construction. It also receives a small amount of money each year based on the inmate population. But county officials contend that the money comes nowhere near fixing what ails the rural area.

For starters, unlike private industry, government operations pay no property tax--the money that counties thrive on to supply services such as health care and police protection. Half of the people employed in Lassen County already work for government agencies; when the new prison is built, that will rise to more than 70%.

And county services are already strapped: The district attorney’s office--a place with 1 1/2 lawyer positions--is operating at 130% capacity. Although the county’s population has doubled since the 1970s, the Sheriff’s Department has about the same staffing as it did two decades ago. In the past five years, the county has lost 45 employees; those that remain just received a 5% pay cut.

“I’ve given up trying to decide why we’re broke,” says a frustrated William D. Bixby, county administrative officer. “I know we’re broke. There’s no sense in analyzing it anymore.”

Still, there are those in Susanville who believe that job growth is important, that the costs can be absorbed, that the benefits are tangible. They ask, what else is Susanville going to do?

Says Lino P. Callegari, a City Council member and former mayor: “There’s going to be some adversity. But . . . we’re sustaining a sound work force in Lassen County.”

About This Series

Prison building already has become a multibillion-dollar industry in California, and with the “three strikes” law, an even bigger boom is forecast for the coming decades. The Times visited prisons, from the Imperial Valley to the North Coast, and reviewed thousands of pages of public records to examine the state’s prisons construction program, life inside the penitentiaries and issues that already are severely straining the penal system.

* Sunday: How tough-on-crime legislation has created a Pentagon-like bureaucracy and generated unprecedented prison construction that has touched all corners of the state.

* Monday: A journey through the California prisons system, where the flow of inmates has far outstripped construction of 16 new facilities since 1984.

* Today: With the state planning up to 25 more prisons by the turn of the century, many communities weigh the potential impact on jobs, housing, public services and property values.

* Wednesday: The cost of keeping the ever-expanding prison system running is being driven higher by the influx of inmates, inflated salaries and health care costs.

Prisons Wanted

Prisons are important economic elements in many California towns such as Susanville and Adelanto. Susanville, in Lassen County, has a 29-year-old state prison and another under construction. Adelanto, in San Bernardino County, has a city-run prison after years of trying to get a state prison.

The Short List

Seven cities ready for a state prison make up the California Department of Corrections short list for future sites. Some already have such facilities and all have met the requisite criteria. “They want us,” says Jan Williams, a prison siting specialist for the state.

MEDIAN CURRENT CITY FAMILY INCOME POPULATION PRISON STATUS San Diego $39,318 1,171,600 Has one Delano $ 21,787 25,800 Has one Sacramento $33,087 391,100 Has one Taft $37,245 6,625 Has a non-state facility Solano County $ 42,393 369,500 Has two California City $ 39,604 8,600 No prisons Needles $ 25,997 5,700 No prisons

Source: “California Cities, Towns & Counties” 1994 edition