Delano inmate beds to be cut as state plans to shifts prisoners

 The Bakersfield Californian Logo

BY GRETCHEN WENNER, Californian staff writer
gwenner@bakersfield.com | Friday, Jun 03 2011 10:00 PM

California has a huge prisoner surplus. Meanwhile, the state is shedding low-cost inmate beds.

Huh?

“It just doesn’t make sense,” said Delano City Manager Abdel Salem.

Some 594 beds at the city-owned Delano Community Correctional Facility are headed for mothballs when a state contract ends in August. About 87 workers will be laid off, worsening the city’s 38 percent unemployment rate.

Other Central Valley communities also face closures and layoffs as similar facilities are shuttered as part of the governor’s realignment plan.

In the Fresno County city of Coalinga, about 514 beds will be lost in August. Layoffs at the city-owned facility have already started because the state stopped sending prisoners there in May, said City Manager Bill Skinner. Nearly half of the 102 employees are already gone.

The fate of two privately owned facilities in McFarland — and elsewhere around California — is up in the air, while city-owned sites in Shafter and Taft are on alert, although their state contracts last until 2017. The sites in McFarland, Shafter and Taft total more than 2,250 beds.

In the northern California city of Susanville, where a county-owned site goes dark in July, supervisors choked up while issuing layoff notices last month, the Lassen County Times reported.

The effort to shut down community correctional facilities has been going on for roughly two years. But the pending closures strike local officials and legislators as particularly troubling in light of last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision saying California must release more than 30,000 inmates from its overcrowded prisons.

What’s more, inmate costs are significantly lower at the CCFs, which contract with the state to house low-level offenders.

Delano’s cost per inmate, for example, runs about $17,000-$23,000 a year. State prisons currently average $44,563, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Delano officials have been fighting hard to keep their site open.

“I’ve made many trips to Sacramento,” said Councilmember Sam Ramirez, who last week addressed a budget subcommittee. The city has hired former state Sen. Richard Polanco to lobby lawmakers.

What Delano is after now, Ramirez said, is time. It’s been talking to county sheriffs around the state in hopes of housing their prisoners when the state’s realignment plans go forward.

“We have capacity in Delano,” Ramirez said. “But we can’t do that in two months.”

Elizabeth Ashford, spokeswoman for Gov. Jerry Brown, said contracts for the community correctional facilities aren’t being renewed because of immediate budget constraints. The state cannot afford them, she said.

Because of the realignment plan — which will shuttle low-risk state prisoners to county jails — there’s also less need for CCFs, she said, since the facilities are designed to house exactly the population the governor wants moved out of state supervision.

“The state’s contract is no longer possible or desirable right now,” Ashford said.

Local lawmakers on both sides of the aisle oppose the closures.

“You’re going to shut down jobs in Kern County,” said state Assemblymember Shannon Grove, the Bakersfield Republican. Grove said she and other Republicans are standing strong against Brown’s realignment proposal and hope if the state can’t fund realignment, it won’t release the prisoners.

Assemblymember David Valadao’s district includes the four CCFs in Delano, McFarland and Coalinga. The Hanford Republican is “very concerned” with the impending closures, said his chief of staff, Tal Eslick, and has been in contact with the corrections department.

“He is committed to doing everything in his power to keep these facilities open and keep these jobs in Kern and Fresno counties,” Eslick said.

State Sen. Michael Rubio, the Bakersfield Democrat, last month wrote a letter to the department requesting its reasoning behind closing the four facilities in Delano, McFarland and Coalinga.

“I am convinced that the 460-plus total jobs slated to be lost in those cities would worsen their already dire economic situation,” Rubio wrote.

The corrections department is in the process of responding to Rubio’s letter, said Lt. Ralph Jackson, department spokesman for contract beds.

The facilities not only provide jobs, but also benefit local government coffers. The city of Shafter gets about $444,000 for its general fund every year, said City Manager John Guinn. Delano gets about $568,000 in service fees.

So far, non-renewal notices have been sent to just three publicly owned CCFs — the ones in Delano, Coalinga and Susanville, Jackson said.

The fate of the privately owned facilities isn’t clear.

“No decision has been made as to any closures of the private CCFs,” Jackson said in an email.

A spokesman for GEO Group Inc., the Florida-based company that owns the two McFarland facilities, declined to say whether the company had received any non-renewal notices. He said only that the sites “continue to operate pursuant to our contracts” and declined further comment.

Officials in Shafter and Taft say they’re glad to have contracts until 2017 but are still following the situation with concern.

Skinner, the city manager in Coalinga, said officials there are relying on the efforts of Valadao and Rubio to help get the word out in Sacramento.

But Skinner believes the governor has made up his mind, especially in light of his recent decision to thin management at the corrections department.

“He’s not going to bring back the CCFs,” Skinner said.

Coalinga, he said, has in the meantime been aggressively marketing its facility to federal agencies and other counties.

Has the effort netted any interest so far?

“A couple bites,” Skinner said.

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