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Tuesday, Sep 17 2013 06:00 AM

Private prison in Cal City could benefit from governor's 'prison fix'

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The private prison at California City may house state inmates — and be staffed by state employees — next year as part of a plan to ease overcrowding in state facilities. Photo by Gregory D. Cook/Tehachapi News

Fate of 300 jobs yet to be decided

When Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 105 into law on Thursday, Sept. 12, he set in motion a number of groundbreaking measures concerning prison realignment -- including some that will affect the greater Tehachapi area directly.

Brown's "prison fix" allocates $315 million through June 30, 2014, to relocate about 9,600 inmates from state penitentiaries to privately run prisons, both in and out of state, among other rehabilitation and relocation strategies. Included in the verbiage of the law is the California City Correctional Center, the private prison in California City, which is named as a facility that the state would lease for the purpose of housing inmates.

The prison is owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America, the company Businessweek cites as the largest prison company in the U.S. Although CCA currently staffs the prison with its own personnel, assistant secretary of communications for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Deborah Hoffman said that could change.

"Essentially the state would hire workers, both correctional and non-correctional staff who are currently working at CCA, and they would then become state employees," she said in an email correspondence.

Hoffman emphasized that no contracts have been signed and that the state is looking at many capacity options, but the specific mention of the Cal City prison in SB 105 suggests that it will, in fact, be used by the state.

Currently, the correctional center houses medium and maximum security inmates for the U.S. Marshal Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a totally celled environment of 2,304 beds.

Steve Owen, public affairs senior director for CCA, released an overview of the proposal.

"California City is an attractive option for the state as it represents the only 100 percent celled facility in the state not currently being utilized by CDCR to house California offenders," the release states.

The celled environment is in contrast to a dormitory environment, where inmates are housed in groups rather than in individual cells.

The document also says that CCCC would be ready by the end of the year, "which would enable the state to address overcrowding levels in state almost immediately."

The plan remains tentative until a federal three-judge panel decides whether to delay or modify the order to reduce California's state inmate population by Dec. 31. In the meantime, the affected agencies are preparing for the shift.

Through several emails, Owen was vague about CCA's potential arrangement with the state and referred questions to CDCR. Hoffman, on the other hand, consistently stated that details on the arrangment, including what could become of the current CCA employees' jobs, remain unknown until a contract is negotiated and signed.

According to a CCA employee in California City who wishes to remain anonymous, government officials toured the prison in June, though employees at the time did not know the reason. In fact, the source said, CCA was completely silent about the pending deal and Cal City workers learned of it through the newspapers when the Governor unveiled the idea at the end of August.

The source said the nearly 300 employees at the prison became concerned about their job security, but breathed a sigh of relief when two CDCR human resources officials and some CCA corporate officials held an informational meeting with the Cal City employees Wednesday, Sept. 11.

Officials told the correctional officers that so long as they could pass the physical and written tests and the application process to become state employees, then their jobs were "pretty much guaranteed," the source said. The only jobs slated for the chopping block are five executive staff positions, the source continued.

Other details the source gave about the meeting included that CDCR officials said they would try to get the current employees comparable pay, would shorten their training period and make it specific to the Cal City facility (a practice called "spot training"), and would make allowances during the process to try to guarantee that no former CCA worker would be out of work during the transition period.

"I was very surprised that the state was being so cooperative and willing to bend over backwards for us," the anonymous employee said.

"If leased as proposed, the state would staff and operate the facility, presumably with as many of the existing employees who wish to continue working at the facility and who meet CDCR qualifications," Owen said in an email.

The anonymous employee added that some of the staff members will probably opt out of working for the state because they do not want to work with inmates of the caliber California would transfer in to the facility, while other older, close-to-retirement employees are concerned about not passing the physical fitness test and therefore losing their jobs.

Despite what the two CDCR human resources officials reportedly said at the meeting, the state's personnel rules may not be as cooperative.

Pat McConahay, communications director for CalHR -- the state organization that administers the tests and handles the hiring process -- said the playing field is open to all applicants.

"The employees will have to compete in the exam, just like everybody else," she said. "They would not be given any preferential treatment. [The jobs] would be open to anyone [who applied and was successful in the exam process]."

If state inmates were moved to Cal City, CDCR officials estimate that 450 employees would be needed to adequately staff the facility, the anonymous source said.

"It's physically impossible to get 450 officers in that short amount of time," the source said, referring to the Dec. 31 deadline. "They understand the need to have our officers in there."

The source cited the current employees' familiarity with the facility and existing training as a plus the state would presumably be unable to overlook.

Both the anonymous source and official CCA statements indicate that the company would lose all management rights at the facility, and would merely be collecting "rent."

"CCA prides itself on having the flexibility to meet our government partners' changing needs with a variety of solutions," Owen said. "Leasing a CCA-owned facility represents one of those solutions, just as providing capacity and management services out of state is another one."

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