Downsize this: California prisons to close and shrink

A guard tower near the perimeter of a California prison. (Photo: Joseph Sohm, via Shutterstock)

Under a 2022-23 state budget, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is launching a process to close prisons and deactivate facilities within others. One on the chopping block is Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Blythe, a city of 18,000, in eastern Riverside County, that is closing in March 2025.

“CDCR and the (Gov. Newsom) administration are working to minimize impact to staff and the communities,” according to a Dec. 6 release from the prison agency. “This will include options to transfer both within and outside of impacted counties, and identification of employees for redirection to neighboring prisons where there are existing identified vacancies. Incarcerated people at these locations will be rehoused into appropriate level prisons.”

“Some people think that this is going to kill our town.” — Kati Cusick

Blythe City Councilman Johnny Rodriguez is skeptical over how closing the male-only prison there can proceed without major impacts to the rural community. He points to how the closure process began. “There was no community outreach before CDCR’s prison closing announcement on December 6,” he says. “It was a total surprise.”

Kati Cusick, a small business co-owner who also helms the Blythe Area Chamber of Commerce, confirms his sentiment about the impact of closing Chuckawalla Valley State Prison on 1,000 people who work there and the city. “Some people think that this is going to kill our town,” she says.

George Thomas, Ph.D., is a retired educator and chair of the city’s advisory committee. “You would think that Blythe and the state of California would work as a team to find a solution,” he says. “The community is in kind of an uproar over the prison closing.”

A Kern County prison run by CoreCivic, previously the Corrections Corporation of America, will close in 2024.

According to Councilman Rodriguez, there are efforts underway from city officials to form an action plan in response to the prison closure news for other stakeholders. One is the Blythe business community.

Under the Capitol dome in Sacramento, Democrat Steve Padilla represents Blythe in the 18th Senate District. He declined a request for comment. Sen. Padilla received $9,800 from the CCPOA PAC during the general election on November 8 out of $832,646 in total contributions while defeating challenger Alejandro Galicia, a Republican.

In addition to the closure of Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, a Kern County prison run by CoreCivic, previously the Corrections Corporation of America, will close in 2024, according to the CDCR. The private company has a $32 milion annual contract to operate the Kern County prison.

California’s 2022-23 budget also calls for the deactivation of facilities inside six other state prisons. They are Folsom Women’s Facility; Facility C in Pelican Bay State Prison; West Facility in California Men’s Colony; Facility A in California Rehabilitation Center; Facility D in California Institution for Men; and Facility D in California Correctional Institution. Staffing these facilities are members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Politically influential at the state Capitol, the CCPOA, with 31,000 members, declined a request for comment.

“California must also adopt prison reuse as a strategic and generative part of its prison closure process.” — Amber-Rose Howard

Amber-Rose Howard helms Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a black-led statewide coalition of over 80 grassroots organizations. CURB seeks alternatives to the state prison system.

“It’s important that California continue this progress in reversing the state’s terrible history of prison expansion,” she says. “Now is the time to adopt a well-considered roadmap for future prison closures, one that centers community investment and is informed by the experiences of people most harmed by incarceration.”

All things equal in 2023, conditions could be ripe for political action over community investment in a time of prison reduction. Stakeholders range from CCPOA members to prisoners and their families, and businesses and their customers. Howard offers one vision.

“California must also adopt prison reuse as a strategic and generative part of its prison closure process,” she says. “The CURB community envisions a world where instead of spending $18 billion on a system that is punitive, carceral, and results in harm, we invest in building healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities for all Californians.”

In the meantime, racial disparities exist among the prison population in the Golden State, according to a 2021 report by the California Budget & Policy Center. The California prison system “incarcerates men and women of color at higher rates than white men and women.”

Seth Sandronsky lives and works in Sacramento. He is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email

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