Inmates want a say in closure of rural California prison

When it rains, water pours through the ceilings at the California Correctional Center in Susanville, sometimes flooding the cells of incarcerated men who have used soap to stop leaks.

Some toilets in the prison do not 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, inmates were not removed from the facility even as power and water were shut off, smoke filled their cells, and they had to do cover their faces with wet towels to breathe, according to court documents filed in Lassen County Superior Court, signed by about 100 men detained there.

“Such barbaric, inhumane conditions are unacceptable in a civilized society,” the documents say.

Inmates and the California Department of Justice agree on one thing: The remote, aging prison, which requires millions of dollars in repairs, must close.

The state should close the facility by June. But it remains open.

The city of Susanville — 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 an injunction stopping the closure.

As the outside world debates the prison’s future, the men held there say their voices need to be heard.

That summer, prisoners attempted to file an amicus brief in support of the closure, detailing problems at the facility.

Judge Robert Moody declined to think about it.

Smoke from the Dixie Fire on August 20, 2021 in Susanville, California.

Smoke from the Dixie Fire on August 20, 2021 in Susanville, California.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

An amicus letter filed last year by the Service Employees International Union Local 1000, which represents prison workers, argues that if the facility closes, workers will “risk losing their livelihoods and be forced to take their lives and families upending and decimating their community process.”

The lawsuit — with a predominantly white city arguing that its survival depends on incarcerating mostly Black and Hispanic men — has “this kind of gross, unseemly character,” Shakeer Rahman, a Los Angeles-based attorney, told the inmate represented that the undersigned amicus briefly.

“The court decides whether to continue a form of bondage, a form of cruelty, based on the personal financial benefits of the people around the prison,” Rahman said. “At every turn, the judge and the city have been silencing the voices of our customers to keep moving forward in this decision-making that treats them as a revenue stream.”

Inmates don’t question their beliefs, Rahman noted; they just want to report dangerous conditions that justify closing the prison.

The case in rural Lassen County could foreshadow future conflicts as California’s inmate population dwindles and other prisons are set to close.

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

In his lawsuit, Susanville argued that when the state announced the prison’s closure in April 2021, it violated the California Environmental Quality Act by failing to conduct the proper reviews of the closure’s impact on the city. After the temporary injunction was issued, the country began the environmental impact assessment in January.

But included in this year’s budget — which Newsom signed into law on June 30 — was a trailer 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. For now, the restraining order remains in effect, said Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Susanville City Manager Dan Newton said the state has not been transparent about why this facility was chosen over older, more rapidly deteriorating prisons and prisons in cities with more job opportunities.

With their trailer bill, state lawmakers “appear to have adjusted the law to their process,” Newton said.

Few places rely as heavily on a prison as Susanville, the only incorporated city in Lassen County. The nearest city, 86 miles away, is Reno, Nev.

The city of Susanville relies heavily on employment at two state prisons.

The city of Susanville relies heavily on employment at two state prisons.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

More than 45% of employment in Susanville is at the California Correctional Center and the adjacent High Desert State Prison, local officials told The Times.

Susanville’s population — about 16,000 according to last year’s census — has long had thousands of inmates at both facilities, a boost that makes the city appear larger and more attractive to incoming businesses.

Attorneys for the inmates — many of whom are sent to Susanville from urban counties several hours away — said it was dehumanizing when city officials treated them as residents when it would be beneficial, but ignored their concerns about basic living conditions.

In court filings, Duane Palm, who is serving life without the possibility of parole on first-degree murder and other charges, wrote that the prison’s remote location made it difficult for family members to visit.

Palm, 46, is from LA County — more than a nine-hour drive south — where his wife, mother and daughters live.

“Isolation from the world,” he wrote, is the best description of prison. “There is a fear of dying in a medical emergency because you have to travel from Susanville to Nevada for urgent care.”

Inmates wrote that conditions were particularly distressing during the Dixie fire, which prompted evacuation orders in surrounding areas.

Corrections spokeswoman Waters said in an email that officers were closely monitoring the fire and it “didn’t come close” to Susanville jails.

“During the past year, fires in the area damaged power lines that powered High Desert and CCC — and the community there in general — both institutions used their respective generators to provide power and ensure proper prison operations,” Waters wrote.

A firefighter fighting the 2021 Dixie Fire.

A firefighter fighting the 2021 Dixie Fire.

(Noah Berger/Associated Press)

Inmates, she added, were offered N-95 masks “to reduce the effects of unhealthy air days.”

Timothy Peoples – who is serving a life sentence on first-degree murder, attempted second-degree murder and other charges – described with sarcasm what he described as the indifferent attitude of prison staff.

“Hey! The Dixie fire is over and the ashes from the fire were harmless and don’t worry about the smoke, your lungs are probably fine so no need for a medical,” wrote Peoples, 52, in court records.

Patrick Everett Noel — who is halfway through a 37-year sentence on attempted second-degree murder, assault and other charges — wrote that inmates were kept in dark cells during the fire because the power was off and they were denied entry has been the outer yard for weeks.

Although “we could see the flames of the fire from our windows over at the top of the mountain,” inmates were not notified of a fire safety plan, wrote Noel, 38.

The delay in closing the facility has been criticized by those who say it is the morally and financially responsible thing to do.

“It is undeniable that the incarceration crisis is disproportionately affecting blacks and other marginalized groups,” said Brian Kaneda, associate director of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a coalition of groups dedicated to reducing incarceration in the state.

“CCC is a crumbling 58-year-old prison,” he said. “The blocking of this process should worry people because it wastes millions of dollars that would be better spent elsewhere, including supporting jobs and economic development in Susanville.”

Bringing other industries to Susanville would be ideal, but that won’t be easy, said Mayor Pro Tem Thomas Herrera.

Local leaders, he said, are trying to boost tourism by focusing on the Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail — an area for hiking, biking and horseback riding along a scenic, old railroad track — and revitalizing Main Street and trying to make that happen at music festivals and other events.

But losing the prison would be “a very serious blow to our community,” and the transition will take time, Herrera said.

The reality is that even those who don’t want to leave the already ailing city will have to do so if they lose their jobs.

“When you pull such a large facility out of our community, you can’t just recover from it overnight,” Herrera said. “There is a desire to get a better industry here. But it’s tough.”

Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report. Inmates want a say in closure of rural California prison

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