CALIFORNIA USED TO need lots and lots of prisons. Big prisons, little prisons, prisons with special cells for gang leaders and prisons for those convicted of nonviolent financial chicanery. There were so many prisoners packed into so many prisons that federal courts intervened, mandating that the state find a way to alleviate the overcrowding.

At the inmate population’s peak in 2006, California incarcerated 165,000 people in state prisons.

Today — after a decade of sentencing reforms and a surge of releases tied to COVID-19 — California prisons house a little more than 95,000 people.

So how many prisons does California actually need?

“Difficult decisions have to be made, but if we don’t make those decisions, the alternative is paying hundreds of millions for prison beds we don’t need to be paying for,” said Caitlin O’Neil, an analyst at the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

O’Neil is the co-author of a new report that lays out how the state can close up to nine of its 33 prisons and eight yards within operating prisons while still complying with a federal court order that caps the system’s capacity.

The potential closures signal a seachange in California criminal justice, representing the wind-down of the tough-on-crime policies that packed prisons in the 1990s and offering one of the few ways the state can cut costs in its $18 billion prison system.

“If we don’t make those decisions, the alternative is paying hundreds of millions for prison beds we don’t need to be paying for.”

Caitlin O'Neil, an analyst at the Legislative Analyst's Office

California prisons held about 120,000 inmates as recently as 2019. That year, newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a goal to close a single prison during his tenure.

“I would like to see, in my lifetime and hopefully my tenure, that we shut down a state prison,” he said that year in an interview with The Fresno Bee editorial board.

Since then, he has already effectively closed two and his administration has plans underway to shut at least two more.

In September 2021, the state closed Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy. The California Correctional Center in Susanville is scheduled to close in June, along with yards at six other prisons.

Two other prisons, in Blythe and in California City, are scheduled to close by March 2025.

Even after those shutdowns, according to the LAO analysis, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has the space to close five more entire prisons by 2027. Today, the corrections department operates 15,000 empty beds, according to the LAO. That number is expected to reach 20,000 empty beds by 2027.

“The state pays for empty beds, and that number hasn’t been justified at this point, “O’Neil said. “It’s really just math, simple arithmetic.”

Some of the communities are rallying to fight the closures. Susanville unsuccessfully sued the state to halt the shutdown of California Correctional Center. Officials in Blythe are making their own plan to lobby for local jobs.

“You’re going to lose prison families and their children,” said Blythe Vice Mayor Johnny Rodriguez. “If they do close this, all these families have to go somewhere else.”

Which California prisons should close?

The state is committed to reducing its inmate population, a process that began in earnest with new laws in 2011 that diverted more convicted people from prison to local jails.

California now spends about $106,000 each year to keep a person incarcerated for a year, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Political support for those expenses has been dropping, particularly among Democrats.

The goal, O’Neil wrote in the LAO report, should be for the state to avoid spending on major capital improvement projects at a prison, then deciding to shut it down, like the audio-visual surveillance system installed at the prison in Blythe, or the $31 million health care facility built at the California City prison in 2021 — just months before the state announced its closure. 

But deciding which facilities to close based on their infrastructure needs has proven to be a frustrating analysis for legislators.

Assembly Budget Committee chairman Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat, said the report is “significant,” but wonders how to implement the closures when he has had trouble parsing just how the prison system chooses which facilities it plans to mothball.

“We appreciate and we understand how difficult the job is that they are doing, but it has been difficult getting the most basic information,” Ting said.  “Like for example, we asked for information on capital planning, so instead of actually giving us a plan, they just told us all the deferred maintenance for every single facility across all the prisons. 

“Uh, well, that’s fine, but they didn’t tell us what’s the schedule, which ones are taken first, which ones they’re doing last. And then when they present the report to us, with their budget requests, they don’t really give us any sense of how they were prioritized.”

CDCR did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment. Neither did the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union representing prison guards.

Some advocates want fewer prisons

For prison abolitionists like Woods Ervin, co-director of the anti-prison activist group Critical Resistance, the LAO report’s conclusions were “super exciting” and come close to their group’s goals of closing ten prisons, and announcing the closures by 2025.

“This is big,” Ervin said.

Once the prisons close, Ervin said, prison abolitionists are also watching what becomes of the facilities themselves.

“We clearly don’t want public facilities to become privatized and then reused for immigration detention,” Ervin said. ”Nor do we want it to be used for any kind of extractive industry.”

The closures, they said, should be followed by the state directing money to both the communities that lose a prison and to the home communities of the people who were incarcerated.

What happened in Susanville

The question of what becomes of a town that once relied on a prison played out in Susanville last year, where the 1,600-bed, minimum-security California Correctional Center was scheduled for closure before the city sued in state court, claiming the shutdown violated environmental laws and failed to follow the prison system’s own rules for choosing which facilities to close.

A judge dismissed the case when the Legislature passed a bill that exempted all prison closures from environmental review.

City officials in Blythe watched what happened in Susanville and worried. Their facility, the Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, is scheduled to close by March 2025.

Blythe is a rural community dependent on its prison not just for jobs, but the ripple effects of a big employer, said Rodriguez, the city’s vice mayor. The prisoners who cannot be treated in prison come to the community hospital, which means more medical jobs in town. The schools will shrink, he said, and teachers will lose their jobs. The inmate program at Palo Verde College would disappear, costing the institution about 250 students each semester.

“It has been difficult getting the most basic information.”

Assemblymember Phil Ting, San Francisco Democrat

Rodriguez, a former Riverside County sheriff’s deputy, said more prisons mean fewer people breaking the law.

“With all the crime in California, you see the benefits of not having criminals in the community,” Rodriguez said.

(While certain crimes have risen somewhat during the pandemic, crime and the homicide rate in California is far down from its peaks in the late 1980s and early 1990s.)

If anything, said Mallory Crecelius, Blythe’s interim city manager, a prison in a nearby community makes more sense to close — the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, an older facility that’s closer to a population center which isn’t as economically reliant on the prison. 

It’s apparently a sentiment with which Norco agrees: “The City of Norco’s official position is, if the state is going to close a prison, the right prison to close is the California Rehabilitation Center,” said Norco city spokesperson Kelli Newton.

Rodriguez and Crecelius said they will be lobbying the state to ask for the change, trying to keep their facility open while public sentiment shifts away from them and the case for public dollars just took a big hit. 

This story originally appeared in CalMatters.