Over the Hill

Barring new inmates, new prison useless

This year, Paso Robles, my hometown, was supposed to get a new, 1,000-bed prison. What we have now is a vacant youth prison. About a year ago, state prison officials said they were going to transform that empty youth prison into an adult prison. But now they’ve changed their minds.

Their switch was revealed earlier this month in Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed new budget, which includes these words: “a reduction of $44.5 million to reflect the cancellation of the Estrella infill project.”

“Estrella infill project” is government jargon meaning the planned conversion of our vacant youth prison into an adult prison named the Estrella Correctional Facility.

The empty youth prison was named El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility. Most of us just called it the “boys school.” It opened in 1947 on Airport Road in the Estrella Plains. It closed in 2008 because California switched to holding most youthful offenders in or near their home communities.

The proposed Estrella Correctional Facility was supposed to house male medical patients. It would also treat outpatients from other prisons.

But now, state prison officials want to cancel those plans. They feel they don’t need the prison any longer because California’s inmate population is shrinking. In the past six months, it shrank by about 11,000.

California, however, still has 33 prisons, containing 133,000 inmates. But prison officials seem confident the inmate population will continue dropping, and the Estrella prison won’t be necessary.

The inmate population is shrinking because of decisions by federal courts including the Supreme Court. They decided California’s prisons are overcrowded and unhealthful. They ordered California to reduce prison overcrowding and to improve prisoner medical and mental health care.

The governor and state legislators responded by passing a law. It made the counties responsible, instead of the state, for all criminals guilty of lower-level offenses and parole violation. The state is to pay the counties for the added expense, but probably not enough.

So, since Oct. 1, all people convicted of nonserious, nonviolent and nonsexual crimes have remained in county jails. That’s where they serve their court-ordered sentences instead of in state prison. That reduces the state prison population and eliminates the need for new prisons.

Some Paso Roblans may mourn the loss of the Estrella prison and its economic stimulus, but not me. I feel America already has too many prisons and prisoners.

Reach Phil Dirkx at phild2008@sbcglobal.net or 238-2372.