Activists Try to Handcuff Delano Prison

Environmental lawsuit seeks to derail a second lockup.

Associated Press

Delano – A coalition of anti-prison groups went to court Friday in Bakersfield, using environmental law to try to stymie construction of a maximum security prison in rural Kern County.

While Critical Resistance and The National Lawyers Guild Prison Law Project filed the suit last year to protect endangered species, including the San Joaquin kit fox and Tipton kangaroo rat, the groups’ primary goal is to stop the state from building prisons.

“We’d like the judge to halt construction of this facility, and we’d like the Legislature to re-examine the efficacy of building all these prisons that aren’t needed,” said Rose Braz, director of Oakland-based Critical Resistance.

The groups say the state’s estimates about decreasing prisoner population prove there’s no need for more prisons.

The 5,000-bed prison would be the second for this small farming town. Ringed by almond orchards and cotton fields, the birthplace of the United Farm Workers union is home to 35,000 people and a 5,000-inmate maximum-security prison.

The City Council approved the second prison after a series of public hearings. Groundbreaking has been stalled by the suit, but the prison is expected to take in prisoners by mid-2002.

City leaders approved the plan with the hope of bringing jobs and much-needed tax dollars to the revenue-starved town. The prison, dubbed Delano II, would employ about 1,600 people and cost $335 million. The state has set aside $4 million to be divided between the city and Kern County for school construction, road repair and other local improvements.

The California Department of Corrections say the new beds are desperately needed, despite figures that show – with 160,750 prisoners – the state has 341 fewer inmates than it did last year.

“We are seeing a slowdown in the growth of the prison population, but we’re talkng about people serving very long sentences and we’ve got overcrowding in our maximum security units now – some very dangerous overcrowding,” corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton said.