State wavers on future of closed Paso Robles correctional facility

The parking lot at the now closed youth correctional facility in Paso Robles.
The parking lot at the now closed youth correctional facility in Paso Robles. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The governor’s decision to withhold more than $100 million to revamp the closed El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility into a re-entry facility for state prisoners is not necessarily permanent, a state spokesman said Monday, but local officials want more clarity about what the state intends to do with the place long-term.

“I’m a little confused” about the state’s intentions, said Frank Mecham, county supervisor and former Paso Robles mayor. He said he hopes the governor doesn’t plan to “leave it as a big white elephant, gathering weeds and dust.”

Meanwhile Paso Robles City Councilman Fred Strong has disinterred an old idea: asking the state to sell the land to Paso Robles for $1, so that “we could repurpose it in any number of possible ways.”

The increased local concern was triggered by Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget decision last week to take away $110 million that had been slated to go to the former boys’ home, which closed in 2008.

Plans to use some of the 160-acre property as a transition spot for the re-entry of state prisoners into society had already begun to slow last year in part because of the governor’s realignment plan, which would instead send prisoners anticipating release to county jails.

El Paso de Robles remained one of four former youth correctional facilities being considered as venues to deal with the state’s court-ordered federal mandate to provide medical and mental health care to inmates, according to Bill Sessa of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

But at one of those four sites, in Stockton, a 1-million-square-foot hospital is coming on line to deal with the medical needs of state prisoners. The state wants to see if that will be enough to handle the problem, he said. The corrections department “doesn’t know if it will need additional construction,” Sessa said.

Asked whether the department might put the proposal back into a future budget, Sessa said, “We may not, or we may.”

He said the money is only “suspended,” not eliminated permanently.

The uncertainty about the former boys’ home off Highway 46 near the Paso Robles airport is not sitting well with local officials, who say if the state doesn’t know what to do with it, they do.

Among their suggestions: a youth training program, other educational uses, auxiliary facilities to augment the local airport, a juvenile detention center and low-income housing.

All those are moot, however, unless the state lets go of the land, which, at this point, it says it does not intend to do.

Strong says he recognizes the difficulty of acquiring local control of the property, but he suggested he would seek it anyway by asking Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, to help out. If other jurisdictions throw in with Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo County, that would help, Strong said.