Live Oak braces for prison shutdown

The governor’s idea that the state could save $5.1 million by cutting loose its contracts with private prison companies will end up costing the tiny town of Live Oak.

The Leo Chesney Community Correctional Facility, just across the Butte County line in the 6,200-person Sutter County town, is on the short list of privately run prisons Gov. Gray Davis last week told the Legislature the state should close to save money. The 13-year-old, minimum-security facility holds 200 women but has the capacity for 270. It employs 44 people.

Live Oak’s mayor, Charlie Eggert, said closing the prison would mean not only the loss of jobs but also sewer and water funds and free services (the inmates perform the city’s yard work) that have come to be counted on to make ends meet.

“It’s going to have a devastating impact, I know it is,” Eggert said. On Jan. 15, a community meeting was held to decide what could be done to stop the closure.

State leaders see it as a done deal. “They are not funded in this year’s budget,” said Stephen Green of the Youth and Adult Corrections Agency, of which the California Department of Corrections is a subsidiary. He said the goal is to shut down the prisons by June 30. The five facilities whose contracts are up would be the first of the 16 private prisons to go.

“It was supposed to save us lots of money, and it has not worked out very well,” Green said, adding that the Live Oak facility is an exception.

Paul Doucette, director of public affairs for Cornell Corrections Inc., whose nationwide holdings include the Live Oak facility, said closing the prison isn’t likely to save the state much money.

“If there are to be correctional facilities closed, they should be the ones that are least efficient and providing the worst [service],” he said in a telephone interview from San Antonio, Texas. “We think it’s wrong to single out five private facilities and say just because they’re private let’s shut them down.”

Eggert, the mayor, doubts the state can run things more cheaply and sees the whole shut-down plan as a "political game" driven by the state prison guards’ union that backed Davis’ campaign. "I feel we’re the victim of a political payback," he said.