Bar none

Live Oak’s private prison may get budgetary reprieve

OPEN FOR BUSINESS <br>Susan Hickey, director of the Leo Chesney Correctional Center in Live Oak, says there’s always tension in the air on days when new inmates are transferred in from high-security prisons. The population is starting to rise after more than 100 inmates were bused away as the prison neared its threatened closure date.

Susan Hickey, director of the Leo Chesney Correctional Center in Live Oak, says there’s always tension in the air on days when new inmates are transferred in from high-security prisons. The population is starting to rise after more than 100 inmates were bused away as the prison neared its threatened closure date.

Photo by Tom Angel

Who’s that? The Leo Chesney Correctional Center was named after the man who was the mayor of Live Oak before the prison opened in 1989, amid split feelings in the community.

Judging by the way her office looks, Warden Susan Hickey appears to be leaving, not returning to, the Leo Chesney Correctional Facility.

“Everything was out of here except for my desk and my computer,” she says. The California Department of Corrections had sent trucks to fetch the furniture, which technically is owned by the state. “My chief of security had a box that he was using as a desk.”

Just a few weeks ago, nearly everyone believed the women’s minimum-security prison in tiny Live Oak, just over the Butte County line in Sutter County, would be shut down forever.

In January, as he was calculating the state budget, Gov. Gray Davis announced that, rather than renew contracts with the state’s privately run prisons, he was ordering the closure of all five of them, a move that had been suggested by the CDC and echoed by the powerful California Correctional Police Officers Association. Editorial writers jumped on the timing: The CCPOA had given Davis a generous $2.3 million in campaign contributions, and its members recently received a substantial Davis-backed pay raise.

The Leo Chesney center, which is owned by Texas-based Cornell Corrections, Inc., was to be one of the first to go, effective June 30.

The folks at Cornell headquarters in Texas had given Hickey a going-away party and presented her with a Waterford crystal clock commemorating her seven years of service. She’d told the staff members who ran the prison’s special programs that they would be laid off on June 7, with the rest dismissed the following week.

Hickey, who took the warden job after retiring from the U.S. Air Force, says, “I was optimistic, but I don’t know why because everyone was against us. But I knew that if people became informed of what we do, the support would be there.”

Live Oak, a city of 6,200 with a staggering 24.8 percent unemployment rate and a median income of $18,500, wasn’t about to let the town’s largest private employer go without a fight. Beyond the 44 jobs it provides, the prison pays heavily into sewer and water funds, and inmates form the city’s yard-work crews, saving taxpayers a collective $135,000 a year.

The prison is located smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood and looks more like a high school—save for the razor wire—than a prison. It’s almost surreal when the ice cream truck jingles by. Occasionally, staffers have to shoo away young boys who sit on the fence to watch prison softball games.

As the community braced to rally against the closure, leaders knew they would have to avoid conflicts of interest. In a small-town twist, Hickey’s husband, Robert, is the city manager. Paula Ford, Leo Chesney’s pre-release coordinator, is a life-long Live Oak resident currently serving on the City Council.

Ford remembers when the prison was hoping to open, in the late 1980s. “It was met with great concern. It broke up a lot of friendships,” she says. Then, “after 12 years, people came together to support keeping it here.”

After the governor’s announcement, a community meeting was called, and 300 people showed up. “In Live Oak,” laughs Hickey, “300 people don’t show up for free bingo.” Spanish-speaking residents asked that another meeting be held in their language, and another 100 came to that one.

Soon, city leaders and residents were on a bus to testify before a Senate subcommittee. “You do what you’ve got to do with what you have,” says Charlie Eggert, Live Oak’s mayor.

The inmates, unprompted, sent out letters in a campaign of their own. “Once we got used to [the Leo Chesney center], we said, ‘We don’t want it to close,'” says Tara Rhodes, 30.

Senator K. Maurice Johannessen, R-Redding, and Assemblyman Dick Dickerson, R-Redding, were quickly on board. Many cities and county boards of supervisors, with Butte’s being an exception, passed resolutions in support of keeping the facility open. A delegation of female legislators took a field trip to Live Oak, and 16 of them signed a letter to the governor saying how impressed they were with the facility.

“It was right after the women’s caucus that there seemed to be a switch,” Hickey remembers.

Davis flipped. On June 6, the prisons got the word they would stay in the budget at least another year.

“It was the fact that we didn’t go away—the fact that our city remained together,” Eggert says. “The whole thing was just nonsense to begin with.”

“I’m holding my breath,” he adds, noting that the state budget has yet to be passed. “I’ll be happy when the pen goes across the page and the prison is still there.”

Paul Doucette, director of public affairs for Cornell Corrections, Inc., says, “Gov. Davis had a tough job. He had a big budget shortfall. … In the final analysis, the system worked the way it was supposed to. [Lawmakers] had the courage to change their minds.”

ALMOST OUT <br>Alisa Dove, 35, in foreground, has 80 days left on her sentence and has already applied for a job near her home town of Woodland, where she hopes to work for the county’s alcohol and drug treatment program. Malinda Kirshner, 23, is scheduled to be released on Christmas Day, after serving four years.

Photo by Tom Angel

Doucette’s tone was decidedly more diplomatic than that of a 30-minute “infomercial” Cornell bought time to run in California’s big television markets. Blood Money, subtitled The Killing of Two Award-winning Prison Programs, opens with shots of a “governor” getting political payoffs. The documentary-style flick spends time in Live Oak but mostly concentrates on how an emergency response team of inmate volunteers from Baker Community Correctional Facility, Cornell’s other California prison, save lives by quickly reaching wrecks on “Blood Alley,” in the desert road on the way to Las Vegas.

The point, Doucette said, was that Cornell’s prisons are “more than just inmates and wire.”

The state prison workers’ union, predictably, has always been anti-privatization. The CDC, predictably, was angered by Blood Money, which included inmates’ stories of sexual abuse at the hands of CDC prison guards.

Stephen Green, of the Youth and Adult Corrections Agency, which oversees the California Department of Corrections, accuses Cornell of spinning “one fallacious lie after another. … Buying TV time and accusing the governor of murder. What slimeballs. They’re a Houston-based company, and they’re obviously using the Enron playbook.”

Green believes it was political game-playing, not reason, that swayed lawmakers. “It just became a bargaining chip in the budgeting process,” he says. “It bought them another year.”

Cornell challenges the state legislative analyst’s contention that shifting the private prisons over to the CDC would save $2.8 million a year (the CDC had estimated $5 million in savings). The company says it can house an inmate for $44 a day, compared to the CDC’s $70.

“That we would spend $16 million [more to run the prisons] is absolute horseshit,” says Green.

The truth will bear out, Green says, when the prison contracts go out to competitive bid. More budget cuts are in the future, and, “I’ll be very surprised if those prisons aren’t on the list again.”

It will take a while for things to return to how they used to be at the Leo Chesney center.

A visit in early August finds about half of the “dorms” closed. The prison has had an average inmate population of 192, with a capacity of 220. On this day, even as a busload of 10 new inmates arrives to be processed, the count hovers in the low 60s.

Eight employees took Cornell up on its offer to relocate to other prisons, but others gambled that the Leo Chesney center would find its way back into the budget.

The prison had been a subcampus of Yuba College, with both inmates and community members taking classes, but when it looked like the Leo Chesney center was a goner, the college dropped the program from its budget. The city had to hire people to do its yard work because there were too few prisoners to continue the program.

When the first busload of 38 inmates left for a high-security prison this summer, Hickey was on vacation, but, “I came in here early so I could say good-bye to them.”

“Many of them have never been ‘over the wall,’ Hickey says, referring to the state prisons, where women convicted of murder, arson and other violent offenses are housed alongside those serving shorter sentences for drug offenses or property crimes.

Inmate Rhodes, who transferred to Leo Chesney from Chowchilla, says, “I was in a room with two lifers.” One “killed all those people for their Social Security money and buried them in her back yard.”

To be placed in the Leo Chesney center, an inmate must have 18 months or fewer left on her sentence and have been convicted of a nonviolent crime.

A huge part of life at the center is participation in its programs, which range from addiction recovery and cognitive behavioral therapy to financial counseling and job search and interview skills. “We just try to give them some skills and tools,” says Ford, the coordinator. Most of the inmates have children, and, “Many of them have alienated themselves from their family and friends. They just have to believe that they’re OK—that there’s a future out there for them.”

Participants in the “prison preventer” program have spoken to students, including some in Oroville and at Chico State University.

All of the inmates have jobs of some kind, and many volunteer for community projects. Prisoners have sewn aprons for Head Start, painted sets for high-school drama productions, built rocking horses for charity and designed fliers and newsletters for nonprofits.

Cornell’s philosophy, says Hickey, is that someone’s punishment lies in the sentence she received, and from there prison should be a chance to rehabilitate. “We believe that people make mistakes but people are not mistakes.”

Alisa Dove, 35, says it’s hard to adjust to the Leo Chesney center, with its close oversight and rules governing how your bed is made and where to put your shoes. “It’s a culture shock coming here. You don’t realize how institutionalized you are,” she says. “It’s a much more relaxed atmosphere. You’re definitely treated like a human being here. Here, they’re encouraging you.”

In high-security prison, Dove says, fights are frequent, and you’re always watching your back. She has 80 days left after having drawn a sentence of seven years for forging prescriptions to Vicodin, to which she had become addicted after several sports injuries.

When inmates were loading chairs, desks and tables onto the trucks destined for the CDC, there was plenty of grumbling. Dove has volunteered to help unload trucks as they return with the furniture. "We promised we wouldn’t complain if we get to bring this stuff back."