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City Of Susanville Sues Newsom Over Prison Closure; Judge Temporarily Halts Shuttering

Downtown Susanville, California
Jon Davis
Downtown Susanville, California

The city of Susanville is suing Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to try and stop the closure of a local prison.

City officials contend the state violated the California Environmental Quality Act, also known as CEQA, by moving forward with the closure of the minimum-security California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville without conducting an environmental impact review, according to a petition for writ of mandate filed July 28 in Lassen County Superior Court.

The city also alleges the state improperly identified CCC for closure, violating state Penal Code sections that outline criteria for choosing prisons for closure.

A Lassen County Superior Court judge Aug. 2 issued a temporary restraining order halting the prison’s closure.

“It does not appear to the Court that the necessary requirements imposed upon the executive branch in facilitating the decision to close the California Correctional Center have been complied with,” Judge Mark Nareau’s signed order reads. “The executive branch of the government of the state of California, like the citizens it serves, must comply with the law.”

Nareau set a hearing for Aug. 17 to consider granting a preliminary injunction, which could keep the prison’s closure on hold while the lawsuit proceeds.

In a press release July 28 announcing the lawsuit, Susanville Mayor Mendy Schuster said closing the prison would “devastate” the community by putting people out of work and “crushing our local economy.”

“Governor Newsom’s decision to select this prison for closure was done for purely political reasons, and was done without environmental review or proper legal analysis,” Schuster said. “The City of Susanville is asking the Governor’s office to come to the table to discuss alternatives to closure.”

Susanville’s lawsuit further suggests CCC was chosen for closure because of Lassen County’s “high rate (of) support” for Newsom’s recall election.

Newsom’s office referred requests for comment to CDCR. A spokesperson for CDCR, Vicky Waters, told NSPR the department is confident it has complied with all legal requirements related to the closure process.

On April 13, CDCR announced the planned closure of CCC by June 30, 2022. It was the second prison closure announced within a year. The Deuel Vocational Institution in San Joaquin County was previously announced for closure by the end of September.

“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,” Kathleen Allison, CDCR secretary, said in a press release at the time. “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.”

Allison is also named as a respondent in Susanville’s lawsuit.

Originally built in 1963, CCC comprises four facilities and “serves as a hub for incarcerated firefighters who are trained for placement into one of 14 Conservation (Fire) Camps in Northern California,” according to CDCR.

CDCR said those fire camps will be part of the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown, and “fire response provided by the camps will not be impacted.”

As of July 28, theprison’s inmate population was 2,242, according to CDCR. About 1,080 workers staff the prison. CCC was listed as 66% occupied.

In a press release, Dan Newton, Susanville’s interim city administrator, criticized the prison closure.

“[I]n a summer plagued by devastating wildfires, closing a fire institution that trains inmates to provide lifesaving firefighting services is unconscionable,” Newton said. “There are other options that need to be considered, and the City of Susanville is willing to discuss these with Governor Newsom.”

According to the city’s petition, closing CCC “is a discretionary act that constitutes a ‘project’ under CEQA and requires environmental review.”

The city alleges CDCR’s determination that the prison closure is not a project under CEQA is an “incorrect application of the law” and is subject to the court’s review.

Susanville has a population of 12,729, but around 8,000 are residents, with the rest inmates at local prisons. Overall, the city makes up a little less than half of Lassen County's population. But that figure is down more than 25% since 2010, due in part to a declining number of inmates.

Eliminating the prison’s roughly 1,000 employees and their families would cause Susanville “to suffer massive economic loss and lead to closure of businesses, vacant real-estate and the shuttering of schools,” according to the city’s lawsuit.

The city – pointing to a report prepared by the Center for Economic Development at California State University, Chico – says the closure of CCC would result in a total loss of about $121 million on Lassen County’s gross domestic product.

“Ultimately, with this type of mass exodus from a community and loss of economy causes blight, including increased drug and criminal activity,” according to the city’s lawsuit.

The city further says the state erred in choosing CCC for closure over other prisons. It alleges in the lawsuit another prison, California Rehabilitation Center in Riverside County, is more appropriate for shuttering because of its estimated infrastructure needs compared to CCC’s.

The city also pointed to the privately-owned California City Correctional Facility in Kern County as an alternative. The city cites state Penal Code section 2067, which states in part, “The private in-state male contract correctional facilities that are primarily staffed by non-Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation personnel shall be prioritized for reduction over other in-state contract correctional facilities.”

That prison is leased, staffed and operated under the authority of CDCR, according to the department.

According to the CDCR, closure of two state prisons was included in Newsom’s 2020-21 budget “as a result of various reforms and other changes that significantly reduced the prison population.”

The state estimates closing CCC will result in annual savings of $122 million.

A graduate of California State University, Chico, Andre Byik is an award-winning journalist who has reported in Northern California since 2012. He joined North State Public Radio in 2020, following roles at the Chico Enterprise-Record and Chico News & Review.