No pen for Glenn
By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror
A clean, recession-proof industry, said local fans.
And servicing the 1700 facility residents would require a staff of 700, promoters trumpeted.
Those potential area newcomers?
Inmates of a state prison, probably a Level III medium security, proposed for Glenn County in 1985. But while the possible new residents concerned locals, it was worries about their relatives that probably doomed the project.
“It’s the type of people the prison would draw to your community,” then?-and-now supervisor Keith Hansen says. “Why, for a few more tax dollars, would we want to give (that) up?”
The chances were 50-50 of a prison coming here if the political climate was favorable, Department of Corrections officials told economic development commissioners in a Nov. 1985 meeting.
First floated in June 1985, the proposal eventually died a year later on the June 1986 ballot, with a measure asking the state to perform a study on the topic going down in flames. The tally: 1941 for, 4542 against. Turnout here was 65 percent, compared to 40 percent statewide.
Ink flowed in the pages of the Willows Journal, with 30 letters in the opinions page in the month before the election. Nine were for the measure, 21 against; almost the same percentage as the vote.
Why did people go against the prison?
Largely because of then then-judge Roy MacFarland, Mr. Hansen says.
“People trust the judge,” he says.
Citizens were concerned over the social effects of a prison – prison families moving to the area, the prison decreasing the quality of life, engulfing the community.
Opponents seemed fairly organized; with former county auditor Joe Sites remembering a three-person group including himself and Judge MacFarland that would take turns speaking at public meetings.
Asked about their personal impression of the proposed prison, many recount personal experiences or conversations with those who have dealt with one.
“I grew up in San Rafael next to San Quentin,” then-Willows city manager Russ Melquist says. “I saw no bad effects compared to the number of jobs.”
Asking the Lassen County auditor about the prisons in Susanville, former county auditor Joe Sites was told that they were nothing but trouble.
Though sometimes exactly what information Lassen County officials had to offer wasn’t apparent at the time.
In a July 3, 1985 Willows Journal article, Glenn County sheriff Roger Roberts said he had talked to his counterpart in Susanville, who told him that “welfare and drug problems quadruple” when a prison moves to the area. He worried about the extra cost of investigating crimes committed at the facility about delays in state reimbursement of such cost.
“’My budget is already under fire,’ concluded Sheriff Roberts. ‘How do I handle the extra crime?’”
So the Lassen County sheriff thought the prison had been a bad thing, right?
Maybe not: two months later, economic development commissioner Pat Silva recounted how her initial opposition to a prison melted when she toured the prison in Susanville with a group from Glenn County, remarked upon returning.
“We met with a supervisor, the sheriff, the police chief and state officials,” Mrs. Silva said. “Everyone said, ‘we can’t say enough about the prison.’”
The prison’s upside: jobs.
Glenn County’s unemployment rate then was, conservatively, 15 percent. Data is not readily available; we estimated using available local data from four years later and 1986 state data. Contemporary letter writers arguing for the prison because of the jobs it would bring gave unemployment figures of “more than 12 percent” and 16.5 percent.
That is, between one in six and one in eight Glenn County-ites looking for work then could not find it.
“Glenn County’s economy is shattered,” Mr. Wiest wrote then in favor of the prison.
The prison would offer 700 jobs and a $19 million payroll, but a big question was how many would be held by locals. Opponents Bernhardt Kaiser and Sarah Odom said only 10 percent; corrections officials said 75 percent; one supporter said 50 percent.
And around another 350 jobs would be created indirectly as a result of the prison, corrections officials and local supporters said – teachers, gas station attendants, and so on. We’ll guess half of these jobs would be held by locals, not new people moving in.
Using opponents’ 10 percent figures and our guess, a prison would have lowered the unemployment rate about two-and-a-half percent. Put another way, about one out of every six people out of work then would get a job.
In conversation with Mr. Hansen, soon after talking about the prison, he mentions how he’s having trouble finding reliable, hard workers to farm his land. What’s missing, he says, is usually someone’s willingness to work, not employment for them around the county.
“Most of the people who want a job have a job,” he says.
Records in the Journal show concerns over power of the prison in the community, economic and social.
“A prison is here forever and ever, never getting smaller, just getting larger and engulfing our whole area and county,” wrote grandparents “Mr. and Mrs. A.H. Manos Jr.”
“People move here because of the quality of life,” Alice MacFarland told the Journal, in an article profiling leading prison opponents. “What would the quality of life be with a prison here?”
“From my experience living in Glenn County, as well as my experience living very near a prison, I feel that the costs of a prison outweigh the benefits considerably,” wrote high school teacher Dennis Halley. The costs he listed, in addition to a greater need for the courts and law enforcement, were changes in the county’s “rural and agricultural atmosphere and character.”
District Attorney Craig Stevenson echoed Sheriff Roberts’ concerns about costs.
“We would have to provide jurors for four-week murder trials,” he said. “We would also have to provide the entire judicial system needed for all these felony cases (which some expected to double), including the public defender, court rooms, prosecutors, judges, the whole deal.”
The volume of letters to the Journal shows a heated debate, with many facts under dispute. Rather vehement opinions were on display, especially around Willows councilman Matt Wiest.
Would a prison have come here if Measure A was passed? “Almost certainly,” wrote former Orland city councilwoman Darlene Friesen in a letter to the Journal. “More garbage,” responds Mr. Wiest to the idea, one column later. “From a feasibility study, there are at least half-dozen additional steps where public input is required for a stop or go decision.”
Today, Mr. Wiest recalls the farmer and prison opponent Tom Ratliff: “Over the prison, I lost his friendship. Certainly his family never talked to me again.”
“I probably said some things I shouldn’t have.”
Perhaps like this one, in a letter to the Journal: “In fact, the probability of (a prison) being built is slim to none even if the measure passes with a 90 percent vote. I would even be willing to bet all of Tom Ratliff’s money on that.”
But in the end, the only thing on the ballot less popular on the June 1986 ballot than the prison was current sheriff’s lieutenant Phil Revolinsky, then a candidate for the high office. (Lt. Revolinsky went down to incumbent sheriff Roger Roberts, getting only 18 percent of the vote.)
Reading old articles on the prison, one notices a theme in development battles, perhaps expressed most prominently in debates over a 1982 Artois mobile home park. Opponents admit a need for this type of development, but argue that the current proposal was not the way to solve the problem.
“Why don’t we seek out something else to bring jobs?”, commented Mrs. MacFarland. “This would be a great place for a central warehouse. The city of the county might put up some land to entice something like that.”
Letter writer Donna Barron agreed, quoting a consultant who said that Glenn County has much to offer, but that the county was doing a poor job of selling itself.
“I know that Glenn County and its citizens can do better than a prison,” she concluded. “There must be better options out there that our elected officials can come up with!”
There must be better options out there that our elected officials can come up with!
Unfortunately, Ms. Barron seemed to view development the same way others view second marriages.
“The triumph of hope over experience.”
Summary: (box this)
What? A state prison corrections officials were “50-50” on putting in Glenn County, if the local political environment was favorable. It wasn’t.
Who: 1700 inmates would have resided in the prison, probably a Level III medium security.
When? 1985 and 1986
So what? Would have provided about 1000 prison and support jobs. Locals would get, conservatively, 250; the number is probably closer to 500 or 600.
For: Former Willows councilman Matt Wiest, many local merchants
Against: Judge Roy MacFarland, DA Craig Stevenson, Sheriff Roger Roberts, county auditor Joe Sites
Killed by: Seventy percent of voters in the June 1986 election; a proposal to ask the state to study the issue, the first step, was on the ballot.