A right to know about Washington Ridge
Do you know that the California Department of Corrections (CDC) has decided to have 110 adult male felons (including violent criminals) live at the Washington Ridge Camp (WRC) on land owned by the US Forest Service, a few miles from downtown and right next to residential neighbors? It was announced last week.
I believe people who live in neighborhoods close to the new prison, residents of Nevada City, citizens of Nevada County, and people who recreate on Tahoe National Forest trails next to the new prison, deserve to know what the impact may be. We also deserve a voice in making this decision that others have told us has already been made.
I believe we should have the right to be involved in making a decision about a prison that could permanently change the character of our town. On Jan. 13, I attended a “neighborhood meeting” at the WRC. The meeting was called by Mr. Frank Quadro, California Department of Forestry (CDF) Supervisor at WRC. Also present were Mr. Tony Clarabut, CDF Area Chief, Auburn, and Mr. John Peck, Camp Liaison Correctional Captain, CDC, Sacramento. The purpose of the meeting was not to discuss whether there should be a new adult prison. It was to tell us what would be happening and when, and to reassure us. I will summarize a few points covered at the meeting.
Mr. Peck said that none of the CDC prisoners at this new prison will have committed murder, rape, other sexual crimes, or arson. Mr. Peck had said he would provide to the public, by this week, a complete list of violent crimes that have been or can be committed by people who will be incarcerated at this prison. As of Jan. 20, we have not yet received this list. We deserve to know in advance of the prisoners’ move to our community what violent crimes they have (or could have) committed.
However, Mr. Dean L. Borg, Assistant Director, Legislative Liason Office of the CDC, Sacramento, told me during a recent telephone conversation that there are no California regulations or statutes that stop the CDC from changing the status of its prisons at any time. Public input or approval is not required. This means the prison could house more violent criminals, such as murderers and rapists, at any time without our knowing. Has the CDC done this at other prisons? We deserve to know in advance.
This is an unsecured prison (technically, “minimum security”). The staffing will be minimal. Mr. Peck said there will probably only be one staff person working the graveyard shift, and a maximum of three for each of the other two shifts.
What has been the effect, if any, on crime rates in other communities that house these prisoners? Mr. Peck said the CDC doesn’t collect this information. I think we deserve to have this data before the prisoners move to our community.
In addition to safety, another concern is property values. Will values go down (or not up as much) for property in proximity to this type of prison? Nevada City is not the same as when the CYA moved to the Washington Ridge Camp decades ago. Communities of private residences now border the Tahoe Forest, and our population continues to expand exponentially. We deserve more information about the possible effect of this prison on property values. All of us agree about the importance of fire mitigation and its costs. In recent years, the WRC has been able to fulfill its mission with a significantly reduced work crew. Mr. Clarabut said he has tried to find other work crew sources for the entire region. He made it clear that the easiest solution is to use CDC prisoners. So the prisoners would be employed as a work crew by the CDF to help provide fire protection. But what size work crew is needed and for how many months of the year? Sierra College, Yuba College, American River College, Cosumnes College, Butte College, to name a few in our region, have academic programs in “Certified Firefighter 1.” These colleges network with fire-fighting agencies to provide training opportunities for their students. Americorp may also have eligible workers, in addition to other California and United States agencies. The choice is not, “incarcerated adult (violent) felons or no work crew.” Also, maybe an all civilian, non-criminal work crew is only needed six to eight months a year, with a skeletal crew during the rain/snow season. It appears the training that had been provided by CDF to CYA Wards could be provided to civilians who want this type of training and work. There may also be a significant net savings when hiring civilian “Pre-Certified Firefighter 1” workers.
I think now, with the closing of the current CYA facility and before the opening of a proposed CDC adult prison, is the best time to reevaluate the work crew and cost issues of the CDF at WRC. I believe experts not involved with CDF and the public should be involved in this reevaluation.
Now is a beautiful time to drive up Highway 20 to see what I am talking about. The roads are dry and the snow still sits on the ground. From downtown Nevada City, where Highways 49 and 20 separate, continue east on Highway 20 just six more miles. When you have almost driven these six miles, look on the right side of the highway for the green and white sign that reads “Forest Conservation Camp.” Make a left turn onto the next street, Conservation Camp Road, and you are in Tahoe National Forest. This paved road goes on for about two miles, and takes you right to the proposed prison site. (Please do not enter the current CYA facilities without permission).
On both sides, currently covered in snow, are walking, biking, and horse back riding trails and vista points. On the left is a meadow. You might encounter a family from the valley playing in the snow, or a local resident snow shoeing or cross country skiing. When the snow melts, you can drive or walk down “Rock Creek Trail” (there’s a posted sign) to Rock Creek park where you might find a group of elementary school children with their teacher walking the path along the creek. The proposed new neighbors of all of these folks would be 110 adult male felons.
I wrote this column for three reasons. Firstly, I think the proposed adult prison population will be a negative for our community. Secondly, I think fire mitigation is essential, but also think there are viable work crew and cost options to pursue. Thirdly, and most importantly, no matter the outcome, I think all of us deserve to have a voice in these decisions. If enough of us say we want to be involved in making these decisions, then, just maybe, those who have used their power, and then tell us they have already made up their minds to put this new prison in our backyard, or those who have power and influence over the people who made these decisions, might reconsider and ask us, “What do you think and want?”
If you want to share your opinion, please call and write: the US Forest Service, California Department of Forestry, California Department of Corrections, Nevada County Board of Supervisors, and our elected state and federal officials. The next scheduled presentation on this issue that is open to the public was requested by Mr. Tony Clarabut, CDF Area Chief, Auburn. Mr. Clarabut’s presentation to our Board of Supervisors is scheduled for Jan. 25 in the afternoon. Call 265-1480 for the exact time, which has not yet been set.
Marty Cottler is a resident of Nevada City.
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