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New Prison Blunts Old Depression's Sting

April 16, 1991|DANIEL AKST

CALIPATRIA, Calif. — Mired in a kind of localized depression for years, this little town has two major housing projects going for it now.

In one, $92,000 buys you suburban splendor: four bedrooms and three baths with all the trimmings, plus a nice-sized yard.

The other development is a little pricier. There, $102,000 gets you a 63-square-foot cell. You can imagine which project is more important to the local economy.

Most of California has been in recession for months now, but this rural territory near Mexico would love such troubles. Imperial Valley unemployment is typically 20%, and among California counties, Imperial ranks dead last in per-capita income.

The suffering shows in towns such as Calipatria, which in recent years lost its newspaper, its doctor and its bank. There's no dry cleaner or movie theater, no big supermarket or stoplight. Mayor James Flournoy says bluntly: "Half of it is torn down, and half of it is falling down."

Yet Calipatrians aren't sweating the recession as much as they might--and not just because they are used to hard times. Calipatria, you see, has got itself a prison.

Hunkered down amid green alfalfa fields a couple of miles from the flagging heart of this old desert outpost is a new $204-million maximum-security facility that will soon draw murderers, rapists and other criminals from all over the state.

Most folks think that's fine. Says Rosalind Guerrero, Imperial County's economic development administrator: "We needed something to change the way we are."

The way Imperial County residents are is poor, mostly, but thanks to the resourcefulness of our criminals, legislators and law-enforcement system, everyone hopes that will change. Crime is flourishing in California, and incarceration is a growth industry.

Our prisons hold about 100,000 inmates, up 337% since 1979 and likely to reach 173,000 by mid-1996, the state Department of Corrections predicts. That does not count the 71,000 inmates in county jails or the 5,800 federal inmates in California. Both categories are also growing.

"It's mostly drugs and stiffer sentences," USC criminologist Daniel Glaser says sadly.

For most of us, this is awful. Crime costs billions, and criminal justice costs billions more. But talk about recession-proof. To ease overcrowding, the state is going on a $3.2-billion prison-building spree.

Calipatria is a great example of how incarceration does not pay, except for communities clever enough to see prisons for just the sort of clean, stable, lucrative industry they are. Calipatria is already reaping the richly ironic profits. Developer Stan Gordon, for example, is building 211 spacious new homes in town, priced from $78,000 to $92,000.

Calipatria is just glad to survive. You get here from Los Angeles by heading south from Indio past the date groves and the gunmetal water of the startling Salton Sea. It is desert most of the way, but the Imperial Valley, watered by the Colorado River via the All-American Canal, is a vast photosynthesis machine. It can be beautiful, but there isn't much culture, and summer temperatures of 115 degrees are common.

The population has been sustained only by an influx of poor Mexicans, and Latinos now make up three-quarters of the town. Employment is largely seasonal work in agriculture, with low pay and few benefits. A three-bedroom home rents for $350. The world's tallest flag pole, Calipatria's only tourist attraction (and at 184 feet the exact distance to sea level), is rusting.

For Imperial County--but especially for Calipatria and the nearby metropolis of Brawley--the new prison will have an effect akin to a whale in a bathtub.

The 4,000 inmates will outnumber Calipatria's 2,700 residents. The 1,000 employees will earn an annual payroll of perhaps $30 million, part of the $40 million to $50 million a year Calipatria State Prison will cost to operate.

And by annexing the farmland on which the prison was built, Calipatria will increase the state tax payments it gets by perhaps 2 1/2 times from the current $151,000. The city will expand its four-member police force. A branch of Bank of Borrego has already opened where Bank of America used to be. A Wal-Mart department store opened last year within a reasonable drive. Calipatria may even get a street light.

Prison wages are far above what the local work force is used to. The Corrections Department says average pay at a state prison is $35,000 a year, and even clerical jobs start at perhaps $17,000 plus good state benefits. By contrast, Flournoy says clerical work in the under-used local school pays $600 a month.

The prison has already had a big impact on real estate.

"In the old days, you couldn't find very much over $40,000," says Calipatria Chamber of Commerce President Dan Carmichael, a Van Nuys native in a string tie. Now, he says, such houses go on the market for $80,000. The mayor, meanwhile, gets lots of calls from speculators trying to buy city land.

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