Why close Chuckawalla prison when Riverside County doesn’t want the California Rehabilitation Center?


When Gov. Gavin Newsom recently sat down with comedian Jon Stewart at San Quentin State Prison for an episode of “The Problem with Jon Stewart,” Stewart highlighted an important issue with the California criminal justice system.

“We have a system that cannot tell the difference,” he said of the state’s ability to distinguish between violent and nonviolent offenders when granting parole. Nonetheless, as Stewart put it, “we have a public that demands certainty.”

As the mayors of cities with prisons, we keenly understand this issue. The public we serve also demands certainty. Our residents want certainty of public safety, which we work toward daily through our local law enforcement agencies and partnerships with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Our residents also want certainty of economic security.

Blythe is a rural community of less than 18,000 residents situated on California’s border with Arizona. Four decades ago, residents invited the state to build a prison, which became Chuckawalla Valley State Prison. The facility now employs 850 people and the families of those employees, as well as the families of prison inmates, representing the teachers, nurses, business owners and other essential workers that make up this community.

The state will be hard-pressed to find another purpose for a prison adjacent to another prison, Ironwood State Prison, and located nearly 100 miles away from the next closest California city. A prison closure will likely force many residents to leave Blythe, setting community institutions like the local community college and hospital on a downward trajectory.

Ultimately, Chuckawalla is a prison that Blythe residents want to see remain open because it’s a pillar of the community’s economic security.

The City of Norco is located at the other end of Riverside County. The city of more than 26,000 residents is in the heart of the Inland Empire, a growing and economically diversifying part of Greater Los Angeles. Norco’s prison, the California Rehabilitation Center, or CRC, was once the Norconian, an art deco hotel converted into a prison before Norco was a city and residents could have a say in the state’s decision.

Today, the CRC requires $1.1 billion in infrastructure improvements. For a site located at the intersection of the rapidly growing counties of Riverside, Orange and San Bernardino, the CRC can easily be repurposed to better serve this region. At a very minimum, closing the CRC seems like a better option than spending $1.1 billion on prison infrastructure – costs that would likely be necessary to facilitate the reforms that the governor shared with Stewart.

For Norco residents, CRC is a prison they want to see closed, an outcome that will likely benefit the region’s economy.

We expect Newsom and the California Legislature to listen to their constituents, review the facts and be able to tell with certainty the difference between Chuckawalla and the CRC. Closing Chuckawalla will decimate Blythe and goes against the community’s wishes, while closing the CRC will grant that community’s wishes and open up an historic cultural asset to its community.

Thankfully, our local state legislators, Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia and state senators Steve Padilla and Kelly Seyarto, have already presented this sensible solution to the governor. Before Newsom and Legislature begin planning how to foster innovation in California’s prisons, they must first employ the tried and true strategy of listening to the people who will be most impacted by their decisions.

Joey DeConinck is the mayor of Blythe. Robin Grundmeyer is the mayor of Norco.

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