A rural California town sued to keep a prison open. Judge rules Newsom can close it

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation can resume the closure of a Northern California jail immediately, a judge ruled this week, dismissing a lawsuit by a rural town trying to stop the closure.

The state was scheduled to close the California Correctional Center in Susanville by June.

But it’s remained open because the city — where local officials say they face economic devastation if they lose more than 1,000 prison jobs — sued the state last year and a Lassen County judge issued a restraining order, with which halted the closure while the case went through the court.

In a decision issued Wednesday by Lassen County Superior Court, visiting judge Robert F. Moody vacated the injunction.

“Legislators and the CDCR had and have formulated policy reasons for closing prisons: There is a shortage of inmates and the inmate population is steadily declining, and the consequent reduction in required staff and physical facilities makes it fiscally unwise to proceed.” to maintain all or our expensive prisons,” wrote Moody.

“The wisdom of such legislative or political policy is and never has been the domain of the courts.”

The state announced the prison’s closure in April 2021, sparking widespread panic in long-shriveling Susanville, Lassen County’s only incorporated city.

The city of Susanville, California pictured on June 9, 2021.

Officials in the city of Susanville, California, pictured June 9, 2021, say the California Correctional Center is an economic lifeline. The prison is now scheduled to close in 2023.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

More than 45% of Susanville’s jobs are at the California Correctional Center and the adjacent High Desert State Prison, local officials told the Times.

In his lawsuit, Susanville argued that when the state announced the prison’s closure, it violated the California Environmental Quality Act by failing to conduct the proper reviews of the closure’s impact on the city. The state began the environmental impact assessment process in January.

But this year’s budget — which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law on June 30 — included a bill that says California law exempts the closure of state prisons and juvenile facilities from review under the state’s environmental law.

The bill says the California Correctional Center must close by June 30, 2023.

In his decision, Moody said that while the trailer bill is legal, it’s the kind of legislative maneuver that “has an offensive odor about it, to be sure.”

“And ultimately,” he wrote, “the issue of satisfaction or lack of publicity in all these matters is an electoral issue, not a judicial one.”

In a statement Thursday, Susanville City Manager Dan Newton said the city council would be briefed by the city attorney and hold a special meeting as early as Monday to determine next steps.

“The city’s primary concern is for CCC employees and their families,” Newton said.

Moody’s decision was hailed by those who say closing the 59-year-old California Correctional Center — which needs millions of dollars in repairs — is the morally and fiscally responsible thing to do.

“Throughout this litigation, the prisoners within the CCC have been treated as either revenue or irrelevant,” said Shakeer Rahman, a Los Angeles-based attorney who filed an amicus brief signed by about 100 men incarcerated at the prison an explanation.

Proponents “view the decision in this case as a crucial victory,” the statement said.

In the amicus letter filed this summer in support of the closure, the jailed men said the prison is crumbling.

A firefighter tackles the Dixie Fire in Lassen County on August 19, 2021.

A firefighter tackles the Dixie Fire in Lassen County on August 19, 2021.

(Luis Sinco)

Rainwater seeps through the ceilings, they wrote, and some prisoners resorted to using soap to seal leaks in their cells. Toilets, they said, don’t flush and are filled with green algae.

And when the Dixie Fire — the second largest wildfire in California history — burned a few miles outside of town last summer, the men weren’t removed from the facility even as power and water were shut off, smoke filled their cells, and had covering their faces with wet towels to breathe, they wrote.

Moody declined to review the amicus briefing.

As California’s incarcerated population declines, other prisons are being considered for closure, state officials said.

The Deuel Vocational Institution in the town of Tracy in the San Joaquin Valley closed last September. In this year’s budget, the Newsom administration said it was “committed to properly sizing California’s prison system to reflect the needs of the state” and could close three more prisons in addition to the California Correctional Center by 2025.

Brian Kaneda, associate director of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a coalition of groups dedicated to reducing incarceration in the state, said in a statement: “Newsom has shown a lot of leadership, but now the state needs one more than ever concrete plan to close prisons included in the proposed January 2023-24 budget.”

“Decisions on which prisons to close next will need to be made soon,” he said.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-09-09/la-me-rural-california-prison-closure-lawsuit A rural California town sued to keep a prison open. Judge rules Newsom can close it

Alley Einstein

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