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Calif. to shut first prison since 2003 — Tracy lockup set for closing

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 9/26/2020 By Alexei Koseff
a group of people standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Inmates walk around a recreation yard at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy in this Jan. 12, 2012, file photo. © Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press

Inmates walk around a recreation yard at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy in this Jan. 12, 2012, file photo.

SACRAMENTO — California will close its first prison in nearly two decades when it shuts down a lockup in Tracy next year, state corrections officials said Friday.

At least one more prison closure is slated to follow the shutdown of the Deuel Vocational Institution.

New criminal justice laws and the coronavirus pandemic have dramatically reduced the inmate population in recent years. The budget signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in June directed the state to identify two prisons to close over the next three years.

Ralph Diaz, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the state would save about $182 million a year by shutting the Tracy prison.

Opened in 1953, Deuel Vocational Institution is the sixth-oldest prison in the state. A recent state study found it needed more than $800 million in repairs and other improvements. With 1,522 inmates, it is also operating at only about 90% capacity, far less than most sites in California’s overcrowded prison system.

Officials now have a year to figure out what do to with the prison’s 1,080 staff members, some of whom could be transferred to the state’s 33 other prisons. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the prison guard union, did not respond to a request for comment.

California’s prison population, which peaked at more than twice what state lockups were built to handle, has been gradually dropping since a federal court ordered officials in 2009 to reduce the number of inmates to 137.5% of capacity.

A realignment plan diverted tens of thousands of lower-level offenders to county jails instead of state prisons, while tens of thousands more inmates were sent to privately run facilities. Voters also passed a series of initiatives to reduce prison crowding.

But prison spending has increased anyway, from $10 billion five years ago to more than $13 billion in the most recent state budget.

Newsom first floated the idea of closing a prison to save money in January — a once unthinkable notion in a state that built 21 facilities in the 1980s and 1990s, and has shut down only one, a women’s prison in Stockton in 2003.

His plans accelerated when the pandemic hit, and corrections officials froze intake and began releasing thousands of inmates early to counter outbreaks in several prisons.

There were 93,067 people in California’s prisons this week, about 109% of their designed capacity. That is down from 114,306 at the end of February and the first time since 1990 the inmate population has been below 100,000.

Jay Jordan, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, which advocates for reducing the inmate population, thanked Newsom on Friday for “making good on his commitment to rebalance our safety budget in a way that aligns with what all Californians want.”

In addition to the prison closure, California has moved in the past year to ends its last remaining private prison contracts, with plans to bring those inmates back into the state system by next spring.

Alexei Koseff is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: alexei.koseff@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @akoseff

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