‘Nothing Will Be the Same’: A Prison Town Weighs a Future Without a Prison

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SUSANVILLE, Calif. — The Mauldin household loved their house. They bought it during the fiscal situation and spent a batch of wealth to upgrade the tan, farmhouse-style home. New landscaping and fencing truthful the 2 kids would person a bully spot to play. An wholly caller room and caller floors. Rows of lilac bushes lining the driveway. But erstwhile connection came down past outpouring that a situation successful the municipality of Susanville would close, the household made a determination they ne'er wanted to make: They enactment their location up for sale.

“We enactment our bosom and psyche into this location and this area,” said Jessica Mauldin, 39, whose hubby works arsenic a situation guard. “We person built our colony here.”

In Susanville, astatine the borderline of a vale hemmed successful by the Sierra Nevada successful distant northeast California, determination are astir arsenic galore radical surviving wrong the walls of the town’s 2 authorities prisons, astir 7,000 people, arsenic outside. About fractional of the adults enactment astatine the prisons — the soon-to-be shuttered minimal information California Correctional Center and a maximum information facility, High Desert, which volition stay open.

When the California Correctional Center was built successful the 1960s, galore radical successful Susanville, which cherishes its small-town mode of beingness — “we’re not rural, we’re frontier,” said 1 nonmigratory — relied connected jobs astatine the adjacent sawmills and connected cattle ranches. Those jobs yet disappeared, and present astir each facet of the town’s system and civic life, from existent property to section schools, depends connected the prison. Over the years, the inmate colonisation has counted toward governmental representation, and factored into the magnitude of wealth the municipality received from national pandemic alleviation funds and authorities wealth to hole roads.

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Jessica Mauldin embraces her 6-year-old son, Jameson, astatine  their location  successful  Standish, Calif., adjacent   Susanville. They enactment     their location   connected  the marketplace  erstwhile  they learned that the adjacent    California Correctional Center would beryllium  closing.
Credit...Max Whittaker for The New York Times

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Credit...Max Whittaker for The New York Times

The communicative of Susanville is not dissimilar that of countless agrarian communities successful America that successful the backmost fractional of the past period welcomed correctional facilities to regenerate dying industries astatine a clip erstwhile the state was undergoing a prison-building boom. But now, California and different states are moving to trim inmate populations and adjacent prisons amid a nationalist question to code radical disparities successful the transgression justness system.

“It volition impact the full town,” said Mendy Schuster, Susanville’s mayor, whose hubby works arsenic a corrections officer. “I don’t privation to ideate what it would beryllium like.”

With truthful overmuch astatine stake, Susanville is warring back, trying to halt the closure done ineligible means, alternatively than seeking retired caller industries to regenerate the prison. Last year, the municipality filed a suit against the authorities that is inactive pending, arguing that officials violated biology codes successful deciding to adjacent the situation and did not springiness section officials immoderate anterior notice.

The combat has been beforehand and halfway for residents for the past respective months, but the contented has besides drawn attraction crossed the authorities amid divisive debates astir the aboriginal of the state’s penal system. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has promised to adjacent 2 prisons — the 1 successful Susanville, and different successful Tracy, a municipality astir 60 miles eastbound of San Francisco, which has already closed — the culmination of years of enactment by activists, arsenic good arsenic the dependable diminution successful the state’s inmate population.

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Credit...Max Whittaker for The New York Times

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Credit...Max Whittaker for The New York Times

It’s a inclination playing retired successful different states too, particularly successful New York, wherever the inmate colonisation is astatine its lowest level successful decades. After erstwhile politician Andrew M. Cuomo announced a slate of situation closures, a backlash erupted upstate that was akin to what has unfolded successful Susanville, with protests implicit occupation losses. More recently, New York’s existent governor, Kathy Hochul, said she planned to adjacent six prisons, which drew condemnation from Republican officials who said the determination would marque the nationalist little harmless and outgo excessively galore jobs.

On Main Street successful Susanville, “Save our agrarian communities,” reads the motion that greets meal customers astatine the Courthouse Cafe. The thoroughfare connects the city’s past and present: On 1 extremity sits the clump of Old West-style buildings of the historical center, and connected the other, the sprawl of accelerated nutrient outlets and large container retailers.

“We person it good,” said Kerri Cobb, a section owe broker, astir the prison. She has organized fund-raising for the lawsuit. “That’s wherefore we’re warring to support it. These facilities gave america the quality to emergence up. And present they are pulling the rug retired from nether us.”

On a brisk late-fall evening, Ms. Cobb huddled with a radical of nationalist officials and situation workers astatine a pizzeria. As a waitress came successful and out, carrying pizzas and beers, Ms. Cobb ran down the fund-raising: $7,700 truthful far, mostly from tiny donations.

The suit has achieved an aboriginal victory: a section justice has issued a impermanent injunction halting plans for closing the situation portion the lawsuit moves done the courts.

Still, precocious past year, a going-out-of-business motion appeared connected 1 of the storefronts connected Main Street, Uptown Uniforms, which for years has sold enactment shirts and pants to constabulary officers, firefighters and operation crew.

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Credit...Max Whittaker for The New York Times

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Credit...Max Whittaker for The New York Times

It was the archetypal tangible awesome of the economical fallout that residents person been bracing for. Not acold distant from Uptown Uniforms is the century-old Morning Glory Dairy, 1 of the businesses successful municipality that merchantability straight to the situation — hundreds of thousands of dollars a twelvemonth of milk, eggs and ice.

Josh McKernan, 32, who bought the dairy a fewer years ago, said helium believes his concern tin survive, but it volition beryllium smaller and helium whitethorn person to laic disconnected immoderate workers. “I’m trying to supply for my kids similar everyone else,” helium said. “If it wasn’t for this I’d astir apt beryllium moving successful the prison. There’s not overmuch else.”

It was 1963, and it was July. The politician of California, Edmund G. Brown, had travel to Susanville to showcase, arsenic a newsman connected the country enactment it, “the nation’s newest conception successful correction.”

With funny officials from different Western states successful attendance, the politician ceremoniously laid a cornerstone of the California Conservation Center and proclaimed the fulfillment of “enlightened efforts to marque liable citizens retired of the delinquent and the criminal.”

This was years earlier the epoch of wide incarceration successful America, and California believed it had a caller conception for dealing with lawbreakers: redemption done hard enactment and transportation with nature. Among the greenish forests and pristine upland air, inmates wearing bluish shirts and bluejeans would larn to conflict wildfires, domesticate chaotic horses and wide trees for hiking trails.

Susanville’s translation was underway.

“When the situation started, determination was conscionable truthful overmuch growth,” said Susan Couso, who moved present arsenic a schoolgirl successful 1962. “Everyone was excited. Before the prisons, aft precocious schoolhouse young men would either spell enactment successful the sawmills oregon spell elsewhere.”

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Credit...Max Whittaker for The New York Times

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Credit...Max Whittaker for The New York Times

On a caller morning, Ms. Couso, a retired schoolteacher who is joined to a erstwhile situation guard, could beryllium recovered astatine the Lassen Historical Museum, wherever she volunteers and which displays artifacts of the state’s settler history.

Ms. Couso pulled from a support an effort she wrote for the Lassen County Historical Society astir the economical roar that followed the opening of the situation successful the 1960s:

“Now, houses were to beryllium built to accommodate the caller employees. Teachers needed to beryllium hired, stores prepared to expand, and astir each facet of the system was acceptable to instrumentality off.”

Today, Susanville, the spot of Lassen County, is Republican state successful a deep-blue state. In the 2020 statesmanlike election, 74 percent of voters chose Donald J. Trump, and much recently, 83 percent of voters, the highest percent of immoderate county, elected to callback Mr. Newsom, who yet survived the challenge.

Perhaps inevitably, then, the plans to adjacent the situation person go political. Most of the town’s leaders accidental they judge the plans are a vendetta from Mr. Newsom to punish them for their blimpish politics, alternatively than the fruition of efforts implicit galore years to alteration the transgression justness system, immoderate approved by voters done ballot measures.

“It’s hard not to deliberation of it arsenic immoderate vindictive measurement from the governor,” said Jarret Ellena, a 4th procreation Susanville nonmigratory whose household has existent property holdings, including motels that trust successful portion connected concern from families traveling from crossed California to sojourn incarcerated relatives.

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Credit...Max Whittaker for The New York Times

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Credit...Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Susanville flourished successful caller decades during a emergence successful captive populations caused successful portion by punitive measures similar three-strikes laws that disproportionately sent Black radical to prison. Many of those filling up situation beds were convicted and sentenced by juries and judges successful wide cities similar Los Angeles and San Francisco but sent to rural, blimpish places similar Susanville to service their sentences.

The state’s prisons became truthful overcrowded that the Supreme Court intervened successful 2011 and ordered them depopulated, ruling that the deficiency of aesculapian attraction and capable nutrient and sanitation violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition connected cruel and antithetic punishment.

The announcement that California would adjacent 2 prisons was hailed arsenic a milestone by activists, the culmination of years of caller sentencing laws and the enactment of wide prosecutors that sharply reduced the fig of radical successful prisons crossed the state. At their astir crowded, California prisons housed much than 160,000 people. Today, they clasp conscionable nether 100,000.

The diminution successful the state’s inmate colonisation that was fueled by the pandemic, arsenic officials ordered aboriginal releases for thousands of prisoners to incorporate the virus, and by changes to California’s sentencing laws successful caller years that were approved straight by voters done ballot measures, has allowed Mr. Newsom to fulfill a committedness to commencement closing prisons.

Brian Kaneda, an activistic successful Los Angeles who has organized campaigns to adjacent prisons, said helium believes the authorities has a “moral and ethical obligation” to assistance communities similar Susanville put successful caller jobs to regenerate the ones successful prisons. “No 1 dreams of being a situation guard,” said Mr. Kaneda, the lawman manager of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, which has campaigned for California to walk little connected prisons. “It’s due to the fact that they person nary option.”

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Credit...Max Whittaker for The New York Times

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Credit...Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Top salaries for situation guards tin attack six figures, but the enactment tin beryllium traumatizing, with unit a changeless threat.

“It’s a hugely dysfunctional place,” said Randall Wagner, 72, a retired corrections serviceman successful Susanville. “People successful the wide nationalist person nary thought what it’s like.”

Richie Reseda was incarcerated successful Susanville from 2012 to 2013 for robbery. Now a instrumentalist and societal justness activist, helium recently wrote that helium understood the fearfulness and vexation felt by Susanville residents, adding that, “The authorities should beryllium helping people” affected by the situation closures modulation to caller careers.

He continued, “Susanville is described arsenic a ‘happy small situation town’ that has created a pastoral beingness for galore of its residents. I had a antithetic experience.”

At times during the gathering astatine the pizzeria, residents pushed backmost connected a communicative circulating connected societal media that Susanville is simply a achromatic assemblage warring to support a prosperity built mostly connected incarcerating radical of color.

“People person pegged america arsenic this achromatic assemblage that conscionable wants to support incarceration going,” Ms. Cobb said. “This manufacture was fixed to america and we embraced it.”

Trevor Albertson, the president of Lassen Community College successful Susanville, is 1 of the fewer leaders successful the assemblage who sees a metallic lining successful losing the prison, adjacent arsenic the school’s concern volition beryllium affected: The assemblage volition suffer astir 200 enrollments, oregon 15 percent of its total, with the nonaccomplishment of programs it runs wrong the prison.

“Who wants to bent their chapeau connected the information we person a prison?” helium said.

In conversations with section officials, helium said, this has been his message.

The municipality should invited the accidental to diversify truthful that “we’re not conscionable shunting radical disconnected to enactment successful the prison,” helium said. “Why are we not celebrating that?”

The Mauldins, meanwhile, pulled their location from the marketplace aft they didn’t get the connection they wanted, underscoring the trouble immoderate families whitethorn person successful selling their homes if the closure goes through. Ms. Mauldin’s hubby considered getting a caller situation occupation successful Blythe, successful California’s eastbound Riverside County, which would let the household to unrecorded successful Arizona, wherever lodging is cheaper. But for now, they person placed their anticipation successful the ineligible effort to prevention the prison.

“What now?” Ms. Mauldin said. “We don’t cognize what’s going to hap and we don’t cognize what our adjacent measurement is.”

As to Susanville’s future, she said, “Nothing volition beryllium the same.”

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Credit...Max Whittaker for The New York Times
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