Prison, Lancaster Mend Fences and Build Tranquil Relationship


Thirteen years ago, Lynn Harrison was a councilwoman in this high desert city when a proposed state prison kicked up a howling sandstorm of protest.

Harrison vigorously opposed the plan, like most of Lancaster’s civic leaders and residents. Both the city and Los Angeles County filed unsuccessful lawsuits against the state to stop construction of the dreaded prison.

But when the 1.2-million-square-foot complex opened in 1993, Harrison got a job there. She’s now the prison’s community resources manager, in charge of maintaining good relations with the locals.


Although Harrison’s conversion was more dramatic than most, many Lancaster residents say they’ve settled into a relatively tranquil relationship with the 4,200-inmate prison. Even the recent announcement that the prison will soon house almost entirely maximum-security offenders--a shift expected to be complete by the end of this month--did not prompt much of a public outcry.

“Before the prison came in, to be quite honest, I was very upset about it,” said Mitchell Frieder, owner of the Downtown Bistro and Cafe on Lancaster Boulevard. “It really did work out well. . . . They’ve been an excellent neighbor.”

The hulking prison rising from the sagebrush was part of a 1987 “share the pain” political compromise. Under pressure to open a state prison in Los Angeles County, which had none, state legislators cut a deal to erect a prison in both the heavily Democratic Eastside of Los Angeles and the predominantly Republican Lancaster. But the Eastside prison was never built.

Lancaster, then a booming bedroom community of 68,000 that prided itself on its poppies, aerospace industry and small-town atmosphere, already had a county jail at Mira Loma. It had a landfill. County supervisors were eyeing the Antelope Valley for a toxic waste dump. In 1990, the city of Los Angeles began trucking sewage sludge to a farm outside Lancaster.

“We were, at that time, under siege,” Harrison said. “The perception was that nobody lived here. It was just a big, open desert.”

Anxious to distance the community from the prison, city leaders successfully fought to keep “Lancaster” or “Antelope Valley” out of the facility’s name. The $207-million complex, a sand-colored compound of two-story buildings that house only men, is now called simply California State Prison-Los Angeles County.


But public sentiment began to shift in the early 1990s, as the recession pummeled defense and construction jobs in the Antelope Valley. Former foes of the 262-acre prison began to look to the sprawling complex at 60th Street West and Avenue J as a place to work.

Harrison said she was struggling as a business consultant and wanted a more stable career.

“I needed to make a living and feed my kids,” she said. She now touts the prison as a good neighbor and a necessary component of the state’s criminal justice system.

She is one of 1,139 people employed at the prison, which has an $88-million annual budget. It contributes an estimated $4 million annually to the local economy in purchases and contracts for services such as plumbing and air conditioning, said Dennis Davenport, Lancaster’s assistant city manager.

“The community of Lancaster has now embraced that prison,” said Mayor Frank Roberts, who said he once belonged to a local group that was “violently opposed” to the facility.

“I did not want to be nicked with the Prison Town complex,” he recalled. “There was a stigma about it, like Soledad. . . . [But] it turns out that the prison is far enough away from the town that we don’t really have that problem. I think this prison has had far more positive impacts than negative.”

Angry Residents Decried Security Lapses

In the early days, however, the penal institution quickly proved that bad fences make bad neighbors. Opponents found their worst fears confirmed when four inmates escaped during the first year, including two maximum-security prisoners. All were captured.


As angry residents denounced the security lapses, corrections officials replaced the warden and installed a lethal electrified fence around much of the prison. There have been no maximum-security breakouts since, though two minimum-security inmates hopped over a pair of chain-link fences and fled in 1995. They, too, were quickly caught.

“Because of those breaches, they really tightened up their security,” said Bill Budlong, an elder at Quartz Hill Foursquare Church, a 300-member congregation that opened a church last month about half a mile from the prison.

“I don’t hear anybody expressing any concern about it at all,” Budlong said. “Now that it’s here, it’s a well-accepted feature in the community.”

That reaction is common among residents of towns with prisons, said James Turpin, a spokesman for the American Correctional Assn., a professional group.

“There are certain misconceptions,” Turpin said, noting that neighbors often fear a proposed prison will mean escaped convicts or declining property values. “If people begin to realize that it’s not that different than having a factory in the area, perceptions will change over time.”

The prison works hard to be a constructive part of the community, Harrison said.

Inmate work crews have provided a range of services, including tending the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds and restoring a 1937 fire engine for Edwards Air Force Base. The prison also regularly donates money to groups that serve crime victims.


Lou Bozigian, co-owner of Fred Sands/Mid Valley Realtors in Lancaster, said the prison has had no discernible effect on property values. In fact, the price of single-family homes in a development across the street from the prison has gone up about 5% to 7% this year, he said.

“I think you will see development out in that area,” Bozigian said. “That west [Lancaster] area is really booming.”

The prison was built to hold 2,200 inmates, mainly maximum- and medium-security offenders, plus about 200 minimum-security prisoners.

Over the years, as tougher sentencing laws packed the state prison system, the population of maximum-security prisoners in Lancaster has swelled. It now houses more than 2,800 men. In March, prison officials announced the Lancaster facility would convert the last of its medium-security yards, housing about 1,000 men, to maximum-security.

Prison officials say the distinction between the two groups is not necessarily the crimes they have committed. Two men could both be convicted murderers, for instance, but the one who has served more time and steered clear of trouble may be considered less of a security risk.

“These are all convicted felons,” Warden Ernie Roe said. “The difference is their length of time in prison and behavior.”


Few Objections to Prison Now Heard

Now a city of more than 125,000, Lancaster remains a conservative, family-oriented community where locals still refer to Los Angeles as “down below” and can reel off their neighbor’s phone numbers without looking them up. Along Lancaster Boulevard, a street dotted with granite monuments to local aerospace heroes and flags heralding the annual Poppy Festival, people greeted news of the change at the prison with a shrug.

“It doesn’t bother me a bit,” said Ralph Roper, a 50-year resident who had stopped at a pharmacy to fill a prescription.

“Nobody cares here,” agreed Elva White, a waitress at the Downtown Bistro, a popular eatery packed with businesspeople for lunch. “I haven’t had a customer who talks about it.”

Aides to Assemblyman George Runner (R-Lancaster) and state Sen. William “Pete” Knight (R-Palmdale) report fielding just one call each from a constituent upset over the increase in maximum-security prisoners.

And at a recent meeting of the prison’s citizens advisory group, only one resident showed up to question the change. Lyle Talbot, a retired surveyor who runs a grass-roots anti-pollution organization, said he was worried about the release of violent felons into the Antelope Valley.

“A lot of people do have this perception that parolees walk out the gate and drift into the community,” he said.


Capt. Tom Pigott of the county sheriff’s station in Lancaster said local parolees “do account for a significant amount of crime” but could not provide statistics on how many arrests involved parolees released from the Lancaster prison.

Sheriff’s deputies conduct regular parole sweeps to catch violators, Lt. Ron Shreves said. During the last six months, he said, 53 of about 900 people arrested in Lancaster were arrested on parole violations.

According to state Department of Corrections data, there are nearly 1,500 parolees in the Antelope Valley. Parole has been revoked for about 230 others assigned to Antelope Valley parole units and all are back in custody, while another 188 are at large.

Pigott, however, said major crime in Lancaster had dropped 20% in the last year.

“I think the prison is trying to do a good job in being part of the community, frankly,” he said. “I don’t think it’s impacted us that much.”