Sierra Conservation Center

An aerial view of Sierra Conservation Center near Jamestown.

Sierra Conservation Center near Jamestown will become the hub of operations for 14 fire camps in Northern California when the 58-year-old California Correctional Center in Susanville closes its doors on June 30 next year, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced this week.

The Lassen County prison is now the second CDCR detention facility slated for closure in the coming year along with the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy that’s set to be deactivated by Sept. 30, with some state lawmakers pushing for more to be shuttered due to decreasing inmate populations.

“While these decisions are never easy, they are opening the door for the department to increase efficiencies as California continues to focus on reentry and rehabilitation efforts,” CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison said in a news release regarding the closure of CCC.

Changes to criminal sentencing laws after federal judges ruled that overcrowding in California’s prison system had become unconstitutional and ordered the state to reduce it has contributed to a decline in the overall prison population from about 144,000 in 2011 to about 120,000 just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of this week, the population throughout the CDCR system had further dropped to about 95,000 inmates as a result of actions in response to the pandemic.

“The significant decrease in the state’s incarcerated population over the past year is allowing CDCR to move forward with these prison closures in a thoughtful manner that does not impact public safety, and that focuses on the successful reentry of people into communities once they release from our custody,” Allison said.

A report from the state Legislative Analyst’s Office earlier this year suggested that the state could close up to an additional three prisons by 2025 due to the shrinking population, which it said would result in a combined savings of about $1.5 billion per year.

More than 55,000 employees across 35 institutions statewide are overseen by the CDCR, which had a budget of $13.5 billion in the 2020-21 fiscal year.

Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a group that advocates for closing prisons and shifting spending on policing and corrections to human services, celebrated the decision to deactivate the two prisons in a news release. However, it was critical that all inmates would be transferred to other prisons as opposed to being released.

“Prison closures must center releases of individuals, not rely on transfers to other prisons,” the group said in a statement. “Californians have been voting and advocating for a shift in our approach to public safety, demanding less reliance on prisons and police.”

Advocates for rural counties have decried a lack of transparency and community involvement in the process of selecting the two prisons currently slated for closure, because both serve as a major employer in the jurisdictions where they are located.

Staci Heaton, acting vice president of governmental affairs for the Rural County Representatives of California, said Lassen County was given only an hour’s notice before the announcement this week about the impending closure of the prison in Susanville.

Heaton said the county’s total labor force is only about 8,800, and more than 1,000 are employed by the prison.

“If the administration is going to take away these facilities, there at least needs to be some sort of economic development plan to replace the jobs,” she said. “We’re seeing with Lassen that’s not happening, because there’s absolutely no communication with the county.”

The prison in Lassen County was not among four recommended by LAO as “strong candidates” for closure in a report from February, which included the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, San Quentin State Prison, and the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, due to the high estimated repair and/or operational costs compared to inmate capacity.

Both prisons announced for closure in the coming year were listed in an LAO report last year of the state’s 12 oldest prisons that had combined deferred maintenance costs totaling more than $11 billion. Sierra Conservation Center was also on the list, with about $504 million in needed repairs.

However, neither Heaton nor anyone from the CDCR contacted by The Union Democrat said they’ve heard that Sierra Conservation Center could next be eyed by the state for potential closure.

Dana Simas, press secretary for the CDCR, referred to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2020-21 state budget that approved the closures of the two prisons and said there was “no further information to be provided” when asked if Sierra Conservation Center could be at risk in the next few years.

Sierra Conservation Center was holding about 2,871 inmates as of the latest population report this week, about 82% of its maximum designed capacity of 3,486. The 420-acre prison opened in 1965 on O’Byrnes Ferry Road west of Jamestown.

Correctional Lt. Ricardo Jauregi, spokesman for Sierra Conservation Center, said the prison employs more than 900 people. He expected most of the employees are Tuolumne County residents, though he couldn’t say exactly how many because some also commute from the Bay Area and other places in the region.

Jauregi said they have not heard any talk about the prison being looked at for potential closure in the near future and that such decisions were out of their control.

“All I can say is our employees are going to continue to work here and strive to be the best they can be and uphold the standards,” he said. “That’s something we take pride in here and will continue to do.”

As far as absorbing the responsibilities of overseeing the Northern California fire camps, Jauregi said it’s not expected to negatively impact the fire camps program. The prison already serves as the training hub for 16 camps from Central California to the southern border.

Jauregi said taking over the camps from the prison in Lassen County will also not replace the loss of Baseline Conservation Camp, which was shuttered by the state late last year. Camps in Calaveras and Mariposa counties will remain the closest to provide crews for responses in Tuolumne County for emergencies such as fires, floods and other natural or manmade disasters.

County Supervisor Anaiah Kirk, who also works full-time at Sierra Conservation Center as a supervising correctional counselor, said it’s “completely locked lips” as far as which prisons could be slated for closure next and when, but there has been nothing to indicate that SCC could be in that discussion.

“From a supervisor point of view, if it did happen, I would be concerned about the economics of it,” he said. “But from an employee point of view, we’re focused on our fire program and making it the best we can, and we’ll absorb CCC’s inmates and get them out to fight fires, because it’s going to be a busy fire season.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 768-5175.