So why is the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation conducting an Environmental Impact Review of the closure of the California Correctional Center in Susanville now — months after it announced the proposed June 30, 2022 closure?
Just after CDCR announced the proposed closure, the city of Susanville filed a legal action in Lassen Superior Court seeking a writ of mandamus to stop the proposed closure. A writ of mandamus is a judicial remedy in which a judge orders a party to follow the law and/or comply with its statutory duty.
According to a Lassen News story published last August, “Upon review of the petition filed by the city of Susanville, (Lassen County Superior Court Judge Mark) Nareau found merit in city’s allegations that the state violated the California Environmental Quality Act and the California Penal Code in making its decision to close CCC.”
According to the restraining order Nareau issued, “It does not appear to the Court that the necessary requirements imposed upon the executive branch in facilitating the decision to close the California Correctional Center have been complied with. The executive branch of the government of the state of California, like the citizens it serves, must comply with the law.”
Nareau also ordered, “Respondents and each of them are hereby enjoined and restrained from performing any acts to further the closure of California Correctional Center pending hearing and further order of this court.”
Despite Nareau’s August 2021 order, CDCR held an Environmental Scoping Meeting on the proposed CCC closure via Zoom Thursday, Jan. 27 and the state agency explained the launch of a new EIR scheduled for completion in the fall of 2022, a step the city of Susanville alleged in its legal action that the state had failed to complete before it announced its intention to close the local prison as required by the California Environmental Quality Act and the California Penal Code.
At the Zoom meeting, Gary Jakobs, of Ascent Environmental, said he is “the project principal” and his Sacramento company would prepare the EIR.
Jakobs said, “As many of you are aware, CDCR did not originally propose doing an EIR, but here we are. The EIR is unusual in that closing a facility does not generally have physical environmental impacts. But in looking at some of the issues that could occur, it was determined that urban decay could occur as a result of reduced economic activity in the region — and urban decay is a physical effect, so we will be evaluating that.”
Vickie Waters, a public information officer for CDCR, responded to Lassen News’ questions regarding the apparent change in process being followed regarding the closure and said the closure timeline, originally slated for June 2022, is no longer in effect.
“This is still a proposed closure,” Waters responded via email from Sacramento, “and due to the ongoing litigation and the injunction, there are no set timeframes at this time for deactivation.”
Ah, but that is a change. A big change.
According to an April 13, 2021 statement from CDCR, “The 58-year-old CCC is expected to close its doors by June 30, 2022. Operation of the 14 conservation (fire) camps currently operated by CCC will transfer to the Sierra Conservation Center; fire response provided by the camps will not be impacted. This is the second prison closure announced by CDCR in the last year.”
According to a timeline presented during the Zoom meeting, certification of the EIR is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2022 — several months past the original proposed June 30 closure date.
Kathleen Allison, CDCR secretary, commented on the reasons for the proposed closure in the statement last April.
“The significant decrease in the state’s incarcerated population over the past year is allowing CDCR to move forward with these prison closures in a thoughtful manner that does not impact public safety and that focuses on the successful reentry of people into communities once they release from our custody,” said Allison. “While these decisions are never easy, they are opening the door for the department to increase efficiencies as California continues to focus on reentry and rehabilitation efforts.”
According to the statement, “This is the second prison slated to close in the coming year, with Deuel Vocational Institution slated to be deactivated by Sept. 30, 2021. The closure of two state prisons was included in Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2020-21 budget and is aligned with public safety as well as a decreased incarcerated population. In addition to the closure of CCC, the secure Level I facilities at California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi and Correctional Training Facility in Soledad will close by June 30, 2022, due to population reduction. These closures are estimated to save an additional $45 million annually.”
The CDCR statements do not address the impact the closure would have on the city of Susanville and Lassen County. With the EIR, those issues should now be on the table.
Peter J. Connelly, a senior environmental planner with CDCR, welcomed the public to the meeting and said he would oversee the creation of the draft EIR.
“We’re here tonight to listen to your comments on what the scope of the EIR should be in that report,” Connelly said. “The focus of your comments should be on the environmental impacts. We know that people are anxious to talk about whether or not they support the closure of CCC, and while we certainly will listen to your comments on that, the focus of why we’re here tonight is to hear environmental comments.”
“The purpose of tonight’s meeting is for us to collect your comments, as well as to evaluate comments that are provided in writing, and together we look at those comments and we determine, obviously, what the Department of Corrections — what issues should be evaluated in the EIR, what potential physical environmental impacts could occur, and then we evaluate those. So, we’re not answering what we will or will not evaluate tonight. Now we just have to listen very carefully to your questions … If you have provided a comment on an issue that you don’t see we evaluated in the EIR report, you will also be able to comment at that time if we missed it — if you felt like we should have evaluated something and we didn’t.”
Jakobs said he is “the project principal” of the project and his Sacramento company would prepare the EIR. According to the company’s website, he is a California Environmental Quality Act and National Environmental Policy Act expert with 35 years of experience and a diverse background in environmental studies for projects in California and the Western United States.
Jakobs repeated the points Allison made regarding the necessity of the closure. If CCC closes, he said inmates would be transferred to other institutions, staff would be transferred to other prisons whenever feasible (including High Desert State Prison in Susanville), approximately 10 staff would be retained to maintain the CCC facility and HDSP will continue to operate.
The EIR process
The review process began with the release of a Notice of Preparation of an EIR on Jan. 11. A 30-day review period, including public comment, ends Feb. 14. A Draft EIR will be prepared and released during the summer of 2022. A 45-day review period is expected to be completed during the summer as well. In late summer, the Final EIR, including response to comments, will be completed. Final Certification is planned for the fall of 2022.
“This is known as an environmental scoping meeting,” Jakobs said. “A scoping meeting is the first step you’ll see in an environmental report process. We’re here to talk about the issues we’ve identified as potentially significant associated with the closure of CCC … We’re also here to listen to your comments about what the scope of the EIR will be.”
The EIR will address “the potential impacts — changes to the physical environment — as a result of the closure of that facility,” Jacobs said … “The Final EIR will respond to any comments that you or others may have on the contents of the Draft EIR report … ”
Finally, he said the EIR and all the information collected on the matter would be given to the CDCR secretary who could certify the EIR. He said the secretary “is also the decision maker as to whether the closure should or should not be approved.”