This California town was already dying. Then the state moved to close its prison
California is unwinding the prison-building boom of the 1980s and 1990s. The cuts are falling on small towns that banked on government jobs to anchor their communities.
BLYTHE – Two things bring people here, prisons and water, and this tiny desert town is losing both.
The locals interested in keeping Blythe afloat have ideas: They’ll build a logistics center, or they’ll develop better recreation opportunities on the Colorado River, or they’ll reopen their soon-to-be shuttered state prison as an immigration detention center.
But they don’t yet have answers.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration late last year announced their community would be one of the next hit by the unwinding of California’s sprawling prison system, a dismantling made possible by the steep decline in the state’s inmate population from some 160,000 people a dozen years ago to about 96,000 today.
His corrections agency named Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Blythe, where about 18,000 people live in 27 square miles of desert pressed up against the Colorado River, as one of the next two institutions to close, along with California City Correctional Facility. Shutting Chuckawalla will cost the community hundreds of jobs.
“We know it’s going to be a ripple effect across all sectors,” said Interim City Manager Mallory Crecelius. “But we don’t really have a grasp of just how much it’s going to impact.”
The early signs for Blythe’s future don’t bode well.
“The City of Blythe is Dying” was the unsubtle headline of a Riverside County civil investigation in June 2022. The report found that the city can’t pay its bills, its population is fleeing to Phoenix or the Coachella Valley, and neither the city nor its residents has bright prospects for the future — and that was before Newsom announced the planned closure of one of the area’s largest employers.
Riverside County investigators “found hard-working people who care deeply for their community, but most city officials are in denial about the future Blythe faces,” they wrote in the report.
Blythe leaders fumed over the report – “I thought it was bullshit,” said City Councilmember Joe Halby – but they had few answers for its findings.
The one solution they do have: Just don’t close the prison.
They call their publicity campaign “Save Chuck.” The city hired a PR firm, the first time it has ever taken that step.
Their charm offensive implored the state to leave the prison open. If anything, Blythe leaders say, close a prison somewhere else.
They even have a participant willing to take the fall, the California Rehabilitation Center in neighboring Norco, an older facility that’s closer to a population center that isn’t as economically reliant on the prison.
“As soon as we learned of the closure, we submitted over 40 public records requests,” Crecelius said. “We wanted to know how they chose Chuckawalla, just a lot of information to help us understand how we got here.
“Those requests have been denied. The state was not giving us that information. They either don’t have it or they just refuse to provide it to us.”
The city’s latest disappointment came in May, when the governor’s proposed budget kept Chuckawalla Valley State Prison on the list of prisons Newsom wants to close.
Then there’s Blythe’s water, which feeds fields of alfalfa taken out of town by the truckload as bales of hay, and is increasingly going to large farm conglomerates. The Metropolitan Water District, which sends water to Los Angeles and other Southern California cities, pays Blythe farmers to leave their fields fallow as competition for Colorado River water gets increasingly desperate.
So if there’s no prison and very little water, what becomes of this place? And what does the state owe a town it saved with a prison in 1988, and is abandoning with the removal of that prison 35 years later?
Budget savings in California state prisons
Newsom so far has identified four prisons for closure, with three of them in the small towns of Susanville, California City and Blythe. They banked on the state’s prison construction boom of the late 1980s and 1990s and built their economies around the government jobs the institutions provided.
But what the state gives, the state can take away. The Democratic majority in the Legislature that once championed harsh sentences has long since changed its mind on criminal justice.
The Newsom administration also has taken to heart the notion that outcomes improve when prisoners are closer to their families and social services, a trend that favors prisons in urban areas.
That flies in the face of decades of prison construction strategy – lock them up far away and let the rural areas enjoy the influx of jobs.
“For a long time, for a couple of decades, we had this idea that as a state we could be safer if we put our inmates, our offenders, in the most remote parts of the state,” said Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat, at a March press conference with Newsom. “If we could just separate them from their communities, separate them from us, from their loved ones, from their family members, that somehow we would be safer.
“What we discovered … is that actually the exact opposite is needed, that we need to be surrounded by community. That it took a community to get folks here, and it takes a community to get them out,” he said.
They’re not done, either. The Assembly Budget Committee’s 2023 budget plan includes a provision requiring the closure of five more prisons by 2027. Lawmakers will consider it in June budget negotiations.
The math makes sense to Ting and other Democratic leaders. Inmate populations are projected to continue falling. California maintains 34 prisons and closing five of them could save the state some $1.5 billion annually, according to estimates from the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
Today, the prison in Blythe employs 801 people, 431 of whom are prison guards – or, in the state corrections’ department’s parlance, peace officers – and the rest are support staff, from nurses to janitors.
That’s a lot of well-paying jobs in a corner of the state where well-paying jobs are hard to find.
‘I plan on leaving’
Jamie Browning used to work one of those jobs, as a guard at Chuckawalla. Now, he’s retired and owner of the sporting goods store Browning’s Bullseye. It’s where locals can buy long guns for dove hunting, mouthguards for their kids’ football teams and floaties for the river.
Hundreds of people leaving the area likely means no more high school football in Blythe and fewer shoppers around hunting season.
Browning knows what he would do if he were still at the prison.
“I’d have to transfer somewhere else because where am I going to get a job making that kind of money with a high school education,” Browning said. “I mean, you have to. You have no choice.”
Fewer families in town means fewer kids at the schools, which will cost the schools funding. The departure of people with state health benefits means fewer insured clients for the hospital, which could drive off nurses and doctors.
And what about the younger generation?
“I plan on leaving. I’m only here because of college and my mom,” said Maricruz Barela, 20, a server at the low-slung yellow Mexican restaurant in downtown called Garcia’s.
Barela said life is already frustrating for younger people in town.
“There’s nothing, we don’t have nothing,” Barela said. “Like for me, because I’m a girl, if I want to get makeup, I have to drive 45 minutes just to go to Parker,” across the state line into Arizona.
Blythe almost died once. It was a cowboy town running out of cowboys, or at least cowboy jobs. Once an important railway stop and an agricultural boomtown that profited from its near-unlimited access to Colorado River water, the construction of Interstate 10 in 1972 diverted travelers from the city’s main thoroughfare, and things didn’t improve from there.
But in stepped the state of California with a prison and jobs that paid well, with state benefits to boot. Soon, Blythe became a prison town. But the rest of the industries withered.
“There’s nothing, we don’t have nothing. Like for me, because I’m a girl, if I want to get makeup, I have to drive 45 minutes.”MARICRUZ BARELA, 20-YEAR-OLD SERVER AT A MEXICAN RESTAURANT
Today, most of the businesses in town are huddled on Hobsonway Boulevard, the town’s quiet main street: a few cafes, auto parts dealers and dollar stores. A four-hour drive from both Phoenix and Los Angeles — longer with traffic — Blythe is one of the countless desert towns drivers may not even notice on Interstate 10 unless they need to stop for gas.
Some help coming from California agencies
The state of California has a plan for Blythe. But whether it’s enough, quickly enough to matter, is another question.
Here’s what the state proposes to do: Prop up existing small businesses with state dollars and retrain the people left in town in other careers.
“The details are still being hammered out,” said California Labor & Workforce Development Agency spokesperson Erin Hickey.
Money will be routed through the county workforce development board for “training and supportive services,” Hickey said. In Susanville, the city got $1 million this way.
“Our lobbyists think that we have a little bit longer. Obviously, we don’t have a lot of time.”MALLORY CRECELIUS, ACTING CITY MANAGER
Blythe could gain a slice of a $500 million pot of money the agency is preparing to distribute for so-called “High Road Transition Collaboratives.” The money will be split among 13 regional entities, one of which is in the Inland Empire.
What the state doesn’t know yet is how much of that $500 million will go to the Inland Empire, and what fraction of that fraction will go to Bythe.
The state also intends to “provide free one-on-one consulting and no- to low-cost training to small businesses that may be economically impacted by the prison closure,” Hickey said in an email to CalMatters.
The problem, Blythe city leadership says, is all of those solutions will take time. Meanwhile the prison jobs in Blythe are scheduled to wind down and finally disappear by March 2025.
Even the solutions from people in Blythe will take awhile. A new detention center requires a 10-year planning process, so that’s unlikely to help. Warehouses and logistics centers are already rampant in Riverside County, albeit on its western edge close to Los Angeles, so the city’s leadership will have the tough task of convincing smaller shipping companies to put a warehouse in city limits.
“We’re working on trying to get companies interested, and there is some interest there on paper,” said Blythe Vice Mayor Johnny Rodriguez. “But until they break ground on that, it’s probably not a reality.”
Either way, they have no choice but to keep fighting, through the final budget likely to be passed in June, and likely even after that.
“Our lobbyists think that we have a little bit longer,” Crecelius said. “Obviously, we don’t have a lot of time.”
CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.