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California Organizers Are Creating Momentum for Statewide Prison Closures

There will be one less prison in California, after a judge thwarted Susanville's effort to block closure of its prison.

Prison janitor Christopher Britton cleans window in an office at the California Correctional Center December 3, 2014, in Susanville, California.

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There’s going to be one less prison in California.

On September 8, visiting Lassen County Judge Robert F. Moody dismissed a lawsuit by the town of Susanville that intended to force the continued operation of the California Correctional Center (CCC), a 60-year-old state prison requiring $503 million in repairs. Judge Moody’s ruling marks the end of the town’s year-long fight to stop CCC from closing. It also is an advance for both the Gavin Newsom administration’s criminal legal reform strategy and toward the goals of prison closure advocates.

CCC was supposed to shut its doors back in June 2022, but shortly after Governor Newsom announced the plans for its closure — which is estimated to save taxpayers $122 million annually — the City of Susanville filed a lawsuit against the Newsom administration to block the scheduled closure. The lawsuit asserted that the state must keep on shipping prisoners to CCC in order to satisfy Susanville’s financial dependence on imprisonment. If the prison closes, the lawsuit declared, how will the town’s residents pay their mortgages and fund their schools?

The town of Susanville relies on three prisons — two state-owned prisons, including CCC, and one federal prison — to anchor its local economy. Susanville is a prime example of the “big prison – small town” economic model popularized across the rural United States in 1980s and 1990s, in which the state claimed building large state prisons would aid small towns by making them predominantly reliant on the incarceration system for economic stability, including jobs, housing, small businesses and state-funded dollars for town infrastructure. This has not produced the economic boom that towns such as Susanville originally envisioned, often leaving them without a developed economy and with the toxic environmental and social impacts of prisons.

The case was drawn out, contentious and attracted national media attention. Ultimately, in the legal battle between Susanville and the state, incarcerated people caged inside of CCC and their families have paid the biggest price. In May, people incarcerated in CCC filed an amicus brief demanding the closure process be expedited, stating that the abusive conditions and toxic culture in CCC prior to its announced closure have been exacerbated by Susanville’s stalling tactics. People incarcerated in CCC have been forced to live in a prison they describe as “operating as though it’s already shutting down.” The brief also refuted the town’s legal arguments against the closure, affirming that human bondage is not an acceptable engine for any town’s stalled economy.

In response to the brief Susanville court officials demanded over $1300 in court fees for the filing. The very next day Judge Moody outright rejected the brief. The court did, however, consider an amicus brief on behalf of keeping CCC, yet embraced only some of the brief’s perspectives, continuing Susanville’s pattern of profiting off incarcerated people but silencing their voices. Judge Moody’s eventual decision allowing the state to move forward with closure came after the state requested an expedited ruling to dissolve the lawsuit, naming the Susanville court’s stalling tactics a “disregard of clear law.” Following a transfer process of around 2000 imprisoned people marked by discontinuity in health care, disregard of existing transfer requests and proximity to loved ones, loss of property, exposure to COVID-19, and interruptions in programming affecting early release credit earnings — no prisoners currently remain in CCC.

Judge Moody’s ruling to dissolve the case in the state’s favor gives the Newsom administration the opportunity to further address California’s legacy of rampant imprisonment and opens up possibilities for what can be done with millions in public savings from prison closure. This year, the Newsom administration’s budget raises the possibility of closing three more prisons by 2024-25. In addition, Governor Newsom signed AB 200, which limits the ability of local governments to challenge future state prison closures. Lastly, the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) affirms that closing five prisons would save the state $1.5 billion per year. More prison closures in California seem to be on the horizon. With this said, the delayed closure of CCC and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s disorganized transfer process underlines the urgency for the state to adopt a concrete plan for prison closure that entails releases and safe transfers. The criteria for this plan must include the knowledge and perspectives of people affected daily by prisons — those caged inside.

Thanks to the work of incarcerated people, organizations and community members, there is a growing public understanding that incarceration operates as a form of racial control and oppression. Predominantly poor, Black, Brown, queer and oppressed peoples have been separated from their communities, warehoused and disappeared. When looking at the numbers of who is impacted by incarceration and the conditions inside prisons, it is difficult to come to a different conclusion.

California’s state prison population has dropped from about 173,000 in 2006 to nearly 93,000 people today, helping to pave the way for more prison closures. And as prisons are closed, a fairer future can be created. Community investment strategies providing a just transition to healthier economies can be adopted to direct some of the hundreds of millions of dollars saved by prison closure into securing financial futures in more sustainable industries like environmental protection, emergency management and infrastructure improvement. More incarcerated people can be safely released from prison and allowed to return to their communities and loved ones with the support they need. Prisons must be fully and permanently shut down.

It is imperative that the momentum for prison closure continues. We’re already seeing strong developments in that direction with the recent naming of Chuckawalla State Prison and six additional yards for closure. California must take strong decisive action to close prisons and do so with a clear plan. Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), a coalition of over 80 organizations, has drafted an initial set of recommendations to close 10 prisons by 2025. CURB will bring a tailored set of recommendations to the 2023 budget process starting with a rally on January 12, 2023. It’s past time to proceed down the road of prison closure, ensuring a brighter, more just future for all Californians.