Chowchilla prison gets first male inmates

By Marc Benjamin / mbenjamin@fresnobee.comOctober 12, 2012 

FRESNO -- Thursday was move-in day for 100 male inmates at Valley State Prison, formerly the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla.

The men are coming from prisons across California as part of the state's plan to gradually convert the Chowchilla lockup into a men's institution by early 2013.

Men arriving at the prison over the next few months are lower-security "level 2" inmates with short terms. They are trying to get out of gangs and have other protection needs, said Dana Simas, a Sacramento-based spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections.

She said the inmates moving in are among the least dangerous in the state prison system.

The prison will house women for a few more months, she said. The women's side has 1,693 inmates. The sexes are separated by a large, walled yard.

A decision last week by a Contra Costa Superior Court judge ended an injunction won by the city of Chowchilla that kept the state from moving ahead with its conversion plan.

A hearing Dec. 7 could re-establish the injunction, said Mark Lewis, Chowchilla's city administrator.

Lewis said the state previously promised county officials that Chowchilla would have only women's prisons. The Central California Women's Facility is across the road from Valley State Prison.

The city sued the state for failing to produce an environmental impact report. Lewis said men's prisons tend to attract more relocating-inmate family members than women's prisons.

But the state refused to prepare the environmental document that would have evaluated effects on roads, water, schools, policing and social services caused by more families relocating, he said.

In California, on average 2 percent of inmate families move to a city where a prison is, Simas said. She said the state does not distinguish between people moving to be near men's or women's prisons.

If the state proceeds with the conversion, all women will move out by early 2013 and Valley State Prison will become a men's prison. At its maximum, it could hold more than 2,300 inmates, Simas said.

Women will go to the nearby Central California Women's Facility, California Institution for Women in Southern California and a re-activated 400-bed women's prison in Folsom, Simas said.

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