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The State | STOCKTON

Inmates, Guards Pack Bags as Women's Prison Shuts Down

March 01, 2003|Michelle Munn | Special to The Times

STOCKTON -- Hundreds of inmates and guards packed their belongings and transferred to new assignments as a Northern California women's medium-security prison locked its doors for the last time.

Over the last couple of months, Northern California Women's Facility prison officials have moved about 450 inmates to other facilities and paroled close to 200 others. Earlier this week, the remaining 65 women took one last look at the concrete and cinder-block buildings and boarded a bus to other prisons in the state.

Meanwhile, 130 prison guards lined up by seniority and, one by one, entered the inmates' visiting room to learn their destiny. For those with more years in uniform, it meant selecting from a number of options and a plum reassignment nearby. For those with less experience, it meant forced relocation.

Because of the state's budget problems and a declining population of female inmates, the Department of Corrections followed a recommendation by the governor to close the prison. The department expects to save $1.5 million over the remaining four months of this fiscal year, and another $10.5 million in the next fiscal year from the closure.

Some guards said they believed the prison's closure was a political move.

"We were used as a sacrificial lamb," said Angelina Moore, a guard with six years of experience who transferred to the women's prison six months ago. "[Gov. Gray] Davis needed to make his cuts, so they looked around and we're the smallest place in the state.... It's horrible. Adjusting to a new prison, new inmates, that's a big deal."

But the pressure to trim prison budgets is a national trend, not a California anomaly, according to criminologists and others in the field.

"Fiscally motivated pressures on prison policy is a universal problem," said Franklin Zimring, a criminologist at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.

In 1997, the number of female inmates in the state reached nearly 11,000. It declined to about 9,800 at the end of last year, according to the Department of Corrections.

Noting the decline in female inmates, the state's legislative analyst suggested to the Legislature in February 2001 that if it needed to save costs, it could close the Northern California Women's Facility because of its relatively high operating costs and its proximity to other prisons with space.

Closing the prison, transferring inmates to four other facilities and employee relocation costs could cost the state approximately $2.2 million, said corrections spokesman Russ Heimrich.

About 190 nonviolent offenders, or 30% of the 640 inmates, were paroled since the announcement of the prison's closure. That is similar to the parole rate of 25% to 33% at the state's other 32 prisons, Heimrich said.

The governor's budget anticipates that the women's prison will reopen in 2004-05 for male inmates, whose population is expected to rise by 2007. Any such move would require legislative approval, officials said.

The women's prison had served as an intake center for newly incarcerated male convicts; the other Northern California prisons with those centers are severely overcrowded, corrections officials said.

Moore's situation is bittersweet: She will transfer to the Sierra Conservation Center, a maximum-security prison housing men and women. Her new post is in Jamestown, 66 miles away from her Stockton home.

Prison officials said change is difficult, and that it will take some time before the guards are settled in their new assignments.

"It's typical human nature," said Deputy Warden George Mosqueda, who closed the prison's doors Friday. "We are changing somebody's life. Some will be happy with their next station, and some will not. It's a matter of getting used to it."

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