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Delano's Grand Illusion

The State Wants to Build a Second Prison in Tiny Delano, Claiming the $600-Million Project Will Make Life Better for Hard-Luck Locals. Believe That if You Want, but the Promised Prosperity of the First Penitentiary Remains a Mirage.

September 01, 2002|MATTHEW HELLER | Matthew Heller last wrote for the magazine about former Oxnard Police Det. Dennis McMaster and the gang-related murder conviction he helped overturn.

State Route 99 bisects the hardscrabble central valley farm town of Delano from north to south. Eleventh Avenue takes you east into the business district. Just before you cross the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks, you can see empty lots and the fire-scorched ruins of what once was Delano's "Chinatown" district. Redevelopment got rid of what the city considered a crime-ridden blight--29 bars and nightclubs in only three blocks--but nothing has taken its place.

A short distance to the east, Central Valley Office Supply's neighbors on one block of Main Street include a 98-Cent Market, the 99-Cent Delano Discount market, a cash advance center and an abandoned theater. "There's not many things to do here," complains 16-year-old Nancy Arredondo. "Teenagers don't know what to do except get in trouble with the police." The city has provided park benches to improve the ambience, but Shawn Clark, the office supply store's owner, describes it as "a park-like atmosphere for vagrants to hang out in."

Sadly, Delano's plight isn't terribly unusual among poor, small towns across the country. But it does have a distinction most others do not. On top of the poverty and blight, Delano can stack dashed hopes.

More than a decade ago, state officials convinced Delano city leaders that the 2,450-bed North Kern State Prison would provide a badly needed economic boost to the town. City fathers, in turn, sold North Kern State to citizens as a panacea for a town wracked by double-digit unemployment.

The city embraced the prison when it opened in April 1993. After all, this is a community whose history is etched with hope. Founded as a railroad town in 1873, Delano owes much of its growth to its rich soil and a steady flow of Latino immigrants who pick table grapes, kiwi fruit and other agricultural products. It was here that Cesar Chavez worked in the vineyards and, in 1962, where he established what became the United Farm Workers union.

The state is now building a second prison in Delano--the state's 24th new penitentiary in 20 years--amid more predictions of better days to come. Just down the two-lane blacktop from North Kern State, construction workers are busy clearing 640 acres that are the site for "Delano II." It eventually will house 4,500 inmates, most of them violent offenders. Clark--who hustles constantly for new business and is one of the few locals to profit from the first prison--can hardly wait. "It gives me goose bumps just thinking about having another prison in town," he says.

Quite a few other people who live and work in Delano are getting goose bumps about the new prison, too, but for an entirely different reason. They wonder what happened to their "gray gold"--the river of jobs, sales tax revenue and other economic goodies that were supposed to flow from having a prison nearby. They now believe they were sold fool's gold, that--notwithstanding the occasional success story such as Clark's--a pall of economic gloom as thick as the Central Valley's tule fog still envelops their town. With the new prison set to open in 2004, Jean Flores, a trustee of the Delano Joint Unified School District, speaks for many in this forlorn little place. "Basically, to me, Delano is like a ghost town."

Delano II may, in fact, be the most controversial prison project in California history. It was first proposed in the early 1990s, but the state chose to build a prison at Corcoran in nearby Kings County. After Gov. Gray Davis took office in 1999--he received $2 million in campaign contributions from the correctional officers union--the new governor resurrected the plan for Delano II and included $335 million in funding for it in his first budget. Most of the money would come from lease-revenue bonds, which do not require voter approval.

In the Legislature, Kern County Assemblyman Dean Florez took the reins, creating a bill that authorized the corrections department to build a 2,248-cell maximum-security prison. It passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in June 1999. "AB 1535 not only addresses the [prison] overcrowding problem but also provides a needed economic boost in Delano by creating an estimated 700 new jobs and $4 million to the local economy," Florez proclaimed.

To critics of the state's prison-building binge, the timing could not have been more dubious. In 1999, crime rates dropped for the eighth straight year; the state's inmate population showed its smallest increase in 20 years and was almost 10,000 below the state's forecast. Still, agency officials insisted that, based on California's projected growth, another prison was justified, particularly one housing the most violent offenders.

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