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PETER H. KING

How to Put a Farm Town 'on the Map'

November 27, 1996|PETER H. KING

CORCORAN — This little San Joaquin Valley town, like so much of what might be called civilized California, originated within the imagination of a real estate speculator. Nearly a century ago, one E.J. Whitley of Los Angeles, a subdivider of Hollywood and Van Nuys, stepped off a train, observed a rough landscape of long grasses and wild pigs, and declared that here he would build his next community. He backed his vision with the purchase of 3,200 acres, and started plotting streets.

Soon a problem emerged. Whitley apparently had not perceived that Corcoran was situated on the bed of Tulare Lake. Fed by three rivers, this was a mysterious, unpredictable sinkhole that seemed to fill and disappear almost on whim. In certain years, it sunk Corcoran under 20 feet of water.

A succeeding generation of California dreamers set out to subdue nature with concrete, and their taming of the Sierra waterworks diminished the threat of Tulare Lake. Corcoran emerged as a center of California "agribusiness." Two rival cotton operations, the Boswells and Saylors, dominated the region. Their competition extended beyond the cotton fields and into the realm of civic improvements, leaving Corcoran with some fine amenities.

Still, it was not enough. A decade or so ago, with the Chinese mass-producing cotton, with drought and general economic decline, the town found itself caught in a deep slump. Corcoran looked to remake itself. It would become the next Leavenworth, Kan., or Attica, N.Y., the new Soledad. Which is to say, it would become a prison town.

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The prison, built on farmland just outside town, opened in 1988. Today its main street, Whitley Avenue, boasts its first McDonald's franchise, a monument to the weekend trade of prison visitors. Prison work crews can be seen in town, painting park benches, raking leaves. One retailer has created a niche selling green jumpsuits and black "Rocky" boots to guards. Maybe the prison did not cover Corcoran in lucre, but maybe at least it kept the place from sinking. Or so say the boosters.

It also brought notoriety. Promised a medium-security prison, Corcoran instead became home to California's most infamous killers. Manson. Corona. The gang warriors from Los Angeles. With tough prisoners came tough tactics, and in the last year allegations about excessive, even lethal, treatment of prisoners have emerged. As described by some guards, the prison performed its own sequel to the Mad Max movie "Thunderdome," forcing inmates into brawls that ended only with gunfire from the guards.

The FBI is on the case, as is Mike Wallace. Grainy footage of an inmate being shot dead by guards has received network play. The governor and attorney general have called for investigations. Now the whole country seems to know about Corcoran. It's that place with the violent prison.

"What a way," grumbled one farmer, "to get on the map."

He lives, this farmer, directly across the highway from the prison. I had met him five years ago, at a time when the town seemed evenly divided about the prison. Many people, like this farmer, then felt betrayed. The promoters had promised jobs and economic boom. Instead, most prison positions were taken by outsiders, who chose to live and shop in larger towns.

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Well, time has worked its magic. Today, despite the high-profile scandal, opposition toward the prison seems, if anything, to have softened. "What can you do?" the farmer asks, driving away to finish a cotton harvest. "It's here, and it's going to stay here." In fact, they are about to complete construction on an adjoining prison, even closer to his farm.

There are still complaints about the lack of economic reward from the prison, but ask residents if the feel, the soul, of the farm town has been altered, and the typical response is a blank stare. They will insist the prison has blended into the landscape, that if it wasn't for the media they wouldn't even know it was there. And as for allegations of atrocities?

"I would suspect most people here don't concern themselves with the inmates," said Allan Asplund, superintendent of the Corcoran Unified School District. "I'd say the common attitude is that the prison is out there and what they do out there is their own business--as long as it doesn't spill out into the community."

See, in the end this town only reflects the rest of the state. Corcoran has become a prison town. California, engaged in what has been characterized as the largest buildup of correctional facilities ever, has become a prison state. If there was a reason for civil treatment of inmates, it has been collectively, conveniently, forgotten. In such a climate, it would be foolish to expect the investigations into Corcoran's violence to go too far.

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