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California to close one state prison and end its lease of private facility in Kern County

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State authorities this week announced they will close Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Riverside County and stop using a privately owned facility in Kern County.

Officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement that they took into consideration a number of factors — including the cost of operating the institutions, the effect the closures would have on nearby cities and the local workforce, and public safety needs — in deciding to close Chuckawalla Valley and end its lease of the California City Correctional Facility.

The state pays $32 million a year to a private company, CoreCivic, to hold inmates in the contracted facility outside of Mojave. Officials said they intend to terminate the lease in March 2024 and close Chuckawalla Valley by March 2025.

The corrections department is operating under a federal court order, enacted in 2010, to keep its prison population at or below 137.5% of the prison system’s intended capacity.

The state’s 33 prisons hold 92,634 men and women, 109% of the total inmates the institutions were designed to house.

Built to imprison 1,738 people, Chuckawalla Valley currently holds 2,037 inmates, according to CDCR statistics. There are 1,899 prisoners at California City Correctional Facility. Inmates at these institutions will be “rehoused into appropriate level prisons,” CDCR officials said.

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California City Correctional Facility is the last private prison to hold state inmates. At the height of the prison system’s overcrowding in 2006, when the inmate population reached 173,479 and some institutions had twice as many people as they were built to house, California began sending prisoners to six contracted facilities in Tennessee, Michigan, Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma.

This practice peaked in 2010, when some 10,400 inmates were being held out of state, according to CDCR statistics. California ended its agreement with the last out-of-state contracted facility in Eloy, Ariz., in 2019.

In the last 10 years, the state’s prison population has fallen from 135,323 to 92,634. This total does not include people held at California City Correctional Facility or those in state hospitals and reentry programs.

Some prisons, however, remain seriously overcrowded, CDCR statistics show. North Kern State Prison in Kern County is operating at 153% percent capacity, Avenal State Prison in Kings County at 150% and Valley State Prison in Madera County at 148%.

Chuckawalla Valley opened in 1988, covering 125 acres of desert in eastern Riverside County, about 25 miles from the Arizona border.

The closure’s economic impact on the nearby city of Blythe is unclear. Ironwood State Prison, which is adjacent to Chuckawalla Valley, will remain open.

The city manager of Blythe, which has about 18,000 residents, didn’t return requests for comment.

When state authorities announced their plans in 2021 to shut down the California Correctional Center in Susanville, local officials sued, arguing it would devastate the economy of the shrinking 8,000-person town, where about 45% of employment was tied either to the correctional center or the adjacent High Desert State Prison.

A judge dismissed the lawsuit in September.

A group of 100 prisoners filed an amicus brief in support of closing the California Correctional Center, saying the nearly six-decade-old prison was falling apart. Rain leaked through the roof, they said, and when the enormous Dixie fire raged in 2021 a few miles away, smoke filled their cells even as the electricity and water were shut off.

Times staff writer Hailey Branson-Potts contributed to this report.


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