A photo of a large, overbearing sign that tells people they have arrived at Chuckawalla Valley and Ironwood state prisons.
A large wooden sign lets drivers know they have arrived at the site of Chuckawalla Valley and Ironwood state prisons. (Yannick Peterhans for TN News)

The Blythe City Council last month received preliminary results from its research partnership with Brown University professor John M. Eason studying the socio-economic impact of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) planned closure of Chuckawalla Valley State Prison.

Eason, an expert on the impact prisons can have on communities throughout their life cycles, said his team of researchers looked at more than 1,700 communities where prisons were located and compared them with the roughly 190 communities in which prisons had closed during a limited 10-year timespan starting in 2000. 

For those communities with closed prisons, Eason said his team pulled data on poverty measures — such as unemployment, the poverty rate and food insecurity — for the two years prior to the prison’s closure and immediately following the closure.

“What we found was that in every case, if you close a prison, that town loses,” he said. “The towns that are closing prisons, those towns lose on every front.”

For the final report, Eason said it is his hope to have a more robust dataset that includes prison closures in communities from 2000-2021 — a time period he and his team are referring to as the “prison bust” — with information divided by whether the community was rural or urban.

“I don’t expect our findings to change, but we do need to refine them more,” he said.

The preliminary report also included recommendations for alternative development for the city as a whole including the renewable energy infrastructure, tourism and warehouses — all of which were mentioned by community members interviewed by the research team. Other development strategies included investing in public health and utilizing the airport for freight.

As for repurposing the prison, some ideas included warehousing, renewable energy and converting it to a data center. However, issues such as the prison’s remote location about 20 miles away from the city center and the fact that the facility houses the wastewater treatment plant and laundry facilities for both it and Ironwood State Prison make repurposing the property that much more difficult.

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“A lot of the plans for the repurposing of the prison, obviously, the city can’t do that alone,” interim City Manager Mallory Crecelius said. “It’s a state facility. It’s going to take state, county, city, maybe even private resources. So we’re really going to need a collaborative approach to move forward.”

And though the prison is not set to be decommissioned until March of 2025, Crecelius said CDCR will completely close down one of the facility’s four yards by Jan. 12 and is currently working to discontinue some of the prison’s programs.

“At the state level, we just haven’t been able to get in and have meaningful conversations with anyone who can make decisions,” she said. “We plan to make a trip to Sacramento in February or March … to just explain our situation, because if we’ve learned anything from this, I really think it’s that CDCR just has a license to do whatever they want without any oversight of the state legislature.”

Eason said the lack of communication between the state and the city regarding the proposed closure shows a concerning lack of planning and care for those whose lives would be negatively impacted.

“I’m very disappointed with the governor’s office and their inability to hear the concerns of Blythe and engage with them in a meaningful way to put their needs first,” he said. “Because if they really want to close prisons, they’re going to have to give communities like Blythe better options.” 

Eason’s research will continue through the spring and culminate in a report that the city hopes to be able to use at the state level in an effort to secure additional support for the city and its residents.

“Our key thing is we’d love to be able to sit down and have a conversation and look at both angles,” Mayor Joseph “Joey” DeConinck said. “We’re here to help, too, in trying to put something together, but it’s no fun when you don’t have no communication.”

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Alicia Ramirez is the publisher of TN News and the founder and CEO of its parent company TN News.