Closing a California State Prison Makes Newsom’s Bucket List

December 5, 2019 Updated: December 11, 2019
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If California Gov. Gavin Newsom has it his way, a state prison will be closed sometime before he kicks the bucket.

“I would like to see, in my lifetime and hopefully my tenure, that we shut down a state prison. But you can’t do that flippantly. And you can’t do that without the support of the unions, support of these communities, the staff, and that requires an alternative that can meet everyone’s needs and desires,” Newsom told the Fresno Bee editorial board recently.

Newsom brought up the idea of shutting down a prison in a broader conversation on criminal justice reform, and never specified which prison, the newspaper reported on Nov. 24. However, California’s political leaders have often suggested closing San Quentin. Built on San Francisco’s north shore in 1852, the prison is the state’s oldest.

In his first year as governor, Newsom has made several bold moves related to criminal justice reform. He suspended the death penalty for the remainder of his time in office and signed a law prohibiting private prisons from operating in the state.

On. Oct. 11, the Democratic governor signed into law Assembly Bill 32, which will phase out the use of all private, for-profit prisons, including both prisons and immigration detention facilities, in California. The bill, authored by Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), will bar the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) from entering into or renewing contracts with a private prison company after Jan. 1, 2020 and will prevent California from holding inmates in privately run prison facilities by 2028.

“During my inaugural address, I vowed to end private prisons, because they contribute to over-incarceration, including those that incarcerate California inmates and those that detain immigrants and asylum seekers. These for-profit prisons do not reflect our values,” Newsom said in a media release when he signed the bill.

Bonta called the signing of AB 32 “a truly historic moment” and slammed the privately-run prison system.

“By ending the use of for-profit, private prisons and detention facilities, we are sending a powerful message that we vehemently oppose the practice of profiteering off the backs of Californians in custody, that we will stand up for the health, safety and welfare of our people, and that we are committed to humane treatment for all,” Bonta said.

CDCR has exited two private prisons this year: the La Palma Correctional Institute in Arizona in June and the Central Valley Modified Community Correctional Facility in September.

The use of private prisons in California has helped the state adhere to a May 23, 2011 Supreme Court ruling that upheld a 2009 three-judge panel’s federal court order requiring the state to reduce its inmate population to 137.5 percent of the prison system’s design capacity. Before California implemented its Public Safety Realignment initiative to deal with the problem of severe prison overcrowding, the prison population had grown to about 180 percent of capacity, and inmates were not getting routine medical and mental health care.

The state passed two assembly bills: AB 109 and AB 117, which became law on Oct. 1 the same year. The “realignment” strategy was an attempt to reduce the state prison population by moving inmates to county jails. Under the new laws, non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenders with sentences of more than one year were to be held in county jails instead of state prisons.

By 2014, the state had offloaded about 25,000 inmates to county jails but fell 9,600 prisoners short of the federal court order deadline, which was extended for two more years. The state’s prison population had grown 12 percent since the original court order was upheld.

In mid-October, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said in a statement that AB 32 was under legal review.

“The idea that a state law can bind the hands of a federal law enforcement agency managing a national network of detention facilities is simply false,” the ICE statement read.

The new state law would force ICE to move detainees to facilities outside the state, affecting California residents, who would have to travel greater distances to visit friends and family members in custody, according to the federal agency.

ICE has come under fire from state lawmakers who have accused it of attempting to circumvent the new state law by trying to lock down long-term contracts with private detention facility operators in California before AB 32 takes effect.

The California State Sheriffs’ Association (CSSA) has also opposed AB 32, mainly on the basis of prison overcrowding.

“While there has been a significant reduction in the state prison population since Realignment, it remains a challenge to continue to meet the federal three-judge panel mandate to relieve prison overcrowding. Removing CDCR’s authority to contract with private prisons takes away a tool and increases the likelihood of releases of dangerous inmates from state prison and heightens pressure to have county jails take on more custodial capacity that would otherwise be housed in state prison,” the CSSA argued.

“Given the significant responsibilities and challenges already assumed by local entities under Realignment and the great pressure on local systems that would surely occur in the wake of an influx of new, serious, offenders in local custody, we are exceedingly concerned about hamstringing state prison officials.”

The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) supported the bill, arguing that privately-run prisons are no longer necessary.

“Since peaking in 2006, California’s prison population has been steadily declining, currently standing at 135 percent of design capacity,” the unions said in their letter of support for the bill. “While more still needs to be done to further prison reform, California no longer needs to rely on private prisons to meet the demand of inmate housing.”

As of Nov. 27, the state’s prison population was at 131.5 percent of design capacity, according to CDCR data.