Deactivation of the secure Level I facility at the California Correctional Institution, Tehachapi, is expected to be complete on Sept. 24, according to Lt. Eric Barthelmes, public information officer.

Barthelmes shared the information with attendees at the September meeting of the Greater Tehachapi Economic Development Council. At the beginning of the month, only about 300 inmates remained housed in the old buildings that were once part of California’s first prison built for women. About 100 inmates would be housed elsewhere at CCI with the remainder transferred to available beds at other prisons in the state, he said.

Dana Simas, press secretary for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the deactivation is because of declining population in the state’s prisons due to a range of measures taken over the past decade.

Simas said these include including legislation (AB 109), voter initiatives (Proposition 47 and Proposition 57), and administrative actions, as well as the actions taken since last year to respond to the spread of COVID-19.

A report by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office published Feb. 2 noted that the governor planned to close the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy by Sept. 30 and a second, unnamed, prison in 2022-23. Based on inmate population projections, the LAO suggested three additional prisons could be closed by 2024-25.

The planned closure of CCI’s secure Level I facility was announced on April 13, along with a surprise announcement that the state planned to close a similar facility in Soledad and one other prison — the 58-year-old California Correctional Center in Susanville by June 30, 2022.

Although CDCR estimates that closure of CCC would save about $122 million per year, the savings of the pending deactivation at CCI are more modest. With an estimated cut of 154 staff positions, Simas said the savings would be about $23.4 million annually.

However, Barthelmes noted, there will be no layoffs or transfers at CCI related to the Level I deactivation and the staff reduction will be handled through attrition. 

Nor are there any plans to take down the old buildings. Instead, they will be maintained in case they might be needed in the future, Barthelmes said.

In October 2006, CDCR reached its all-time-high population of 173,479, Simas said. As of Sept. 13, there were 99,125 incarcerated persons in California’s 34 prisons. Of those, 2,746 were housed at CCI.

According to inmate population reports published by CDCR, the Level I population at CCI was 873 in January 2019 and had dropped to 721 in January 2020, just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. By January 2021 the population was down to 290 and by March to 285.

Other prison closures

According to CDCR population reports, all inmates had been moved from DVI by the end of July. And although the inmate population at CCC was down to only 62 percent of design capacity at the end of August, a Lassen County Superior Court judge has issued a temporary restraining order to prevent the closure of the Susanville facility pending resolution of a lawsuit filed by the city of Susanville. 

Fearing economic ruin by the loss of more than 1,000 jobs at one of two state prisons located near Susanville, the city decided to sue the state in June. It alleges that the state violated the California Environmental Quality Act and the California Penal Code in making its decision to close CCC.

The state contends that it has less need for dormitory-style housing — such as that at CCC and in CCI’s old Level I facility.

According to a report in the Lassen County Times, on Aug. 23 the judge rejected the state’s request for a change of venue to Sacramento. A hearing on the city’s Writ of Mandate has been set for Oct. 9 in Susanville.

CCI prison history

The facility being vacated at CCI was part of the first California prison built especially for women. As noted in a CDCR history, women were once incarcerated in separate areas at the state’s first prison, San Quentin. But in the early 1930s, the California Institution for Women opened in a remote area near Tehachapi.

At the time, there was little activity in the Cummings Valley except for ranching and some farming. Construction began in 1931 and Gov. James Rolph was present for the dedication in 1932. In the 1940s, the name “Tehachapi” became somewhat famous as a reference to the women’s prison in radio shows and films.

According to a history authored by the late John R. Van Westen of Tehachapi — a lieutenant at CCI for many years — the original buildings were constructed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

“Four permanent buildings, of Normandy style, were erected,” he wrote around 1976. “One was the Administration Building, and the other three were cottages, a new concept in housing for women prisoners. A fifth building, along the southern side of the central grounds, was also erected. It was of frame construction, but had a high pitched shingled roof, which blended in well with the other buildings. Half of this was used for the laundry… the rest of the space was used for receiving and storage.”

Van Westen noted that although the building was complete in 1952, the women prisoners could not be moved to Tehachapi until 1933 due to legal issues.

Two of the two-story cottages, he said, were called Davis and Willard. The lower floor of the third was Culver Cottage, a segregated unit for Black women; the upper floor of that building became a housing unit for older women.

The cottages were described as home-like and the women were encouraged to play games, read, sew, and have other activities including playing tennis. In the summer, swimming in a small reservoir was allowed.

But on July 21, 1952, the prison sustained significant damage from the 7.7 earthquake that killed 12 people in nearby Tehachapi. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, the 417 inmates were ushered out of the wreckage by 70 guards and “spent a day on the lawns in front of the warden’s Tudor-style mansion as members of the military pitched tents to shelter them for several weeks.”

Coincidentally, the state was already building a new women’s prison in Southern California. The Times reported that Gov. Earl Warren issued each woman a “good conduct” reward worth a month off her sentence, and the inmates were moved to the new prison.

People in Tehachapi were still coming to terms with the devastation from the earthquake — and some had lost jobs at the prison. The state wasn’t sure what it would do with the empty and damaged prison.

“The buildings stood with roofs damaged, and many windows out,” Van Westen wrote. “It was decided to make sufficient repair of the buildings and utilities to prevent further damage from winter storms.”

So, on Sept. 4, 1952, just weeks after the earthquake, 33 male inmates arrived at the prison under the supervision of Van Westen and three officers. The inmates were temporarily housed in former staff housing apartments outside the fence and officers took up quarters in one of the staff houses.

The camp was officially designated as Honor Camp No. 50. One correctional officer who had worked at the women’s prison remained as a caretaker. The inmates kept busy making repairs to the buildings and clearing rubble.     

Van Westen and his crew worked with staff from the state architect’s office and wrapped up the project in late October. The corrections department then turned the facility over to the Department of Finance, its future uncertain.

Meanwhile, Van Westen wrote, the city of Tehachapi was having trouble rebuilding after the earthquake with little held from insurance or the government. Aware of the work prison inmates had done at the facility in Cummings Valley, the city appealed to the state legislature and $20,000 in funding to bring a work crew back to the closed prison was approved. Work started in September 1953. Among projects completed by inmates was demolition of the damaged Tehachapi Valley Hospital building to make way for new construction.

By the middle of November, Tehachapi was looking much better and there was plenty of community support when the state legislature decided in 1954 to reopen the prison as a branch of CIM, Van Westen wrote. 

With 22 staff members and 19 inmates, the prison opened on Jan. 3, 1955. Gradually the old buildings were reconditioned, additional structures constructed and the population increased.

Eventually the facility was no longer a branch of CIM but known as CCI.

And, as Van Westen wrote in 1976, “it would be impossible to list the many alterations and changes made in the buildings of the old institution, particularly the Administration Building. Rooms have been enlarged, partitioned and remodeled time after time, as programs and needs changed or new offices were needed. This is still going on, and former staff members from years past would no longer recognize the buildings.”

Van Westen retired in 1973 and died in 1989. The building once called Culver Cottage, then Culver Hall, was named for him and is still known as Van Westen Hall.

Today, CCI is a collection of facilities, including maximum-security prisons built in the mid-1980s, all served by the administration building constructed nearly 90 years ago.

Claudia Elliott is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Tehachapi News. She lives in Tehachapi and can be reached by email: claudia@claudiaelliott.net.