California to turn rural prisons into logistics warehouses

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Deuel Vocational Institution, which opened in 1953 in the town of Tracy, is the sixth oldest prison in California. Courtesy of the Professional Institution of Deuel.

As California begins to close prisons, what could open in their stead?

I glimpsed an answer to this question while driving to Deuel Vocational Institution, between the county towns of San Joaquin, Tracy, and Manteca. Deuel’s disappearance, which closes at the end of September, is more than the first closure of a state prison in a generation. It also opens a prison window on the future of our landscapes, and on the singular predations of Californian progress.

Heeding my phone directions from Oakland, I exited I-205 at Tracy and followed Grant Line Road to the jail. On my way to this human warehouse, I had to walk a thoroughfare lined with another breed of warehouse: massive logistics facilities for retailers in our country.

On Grant Line, I encountered two Amazon warehouses big enough to hide the sun, distribution centers for Home Depot and US Foods, and huge facilities named after third-party logistics companies NFI and APL. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also had a large regional distribution warehouse there. And very close to the prison stood the largest of all the warehouses, still under construction (its possible occupant has not been disclosed), appearing twice as high as all the others.

By the time the road turned right and I could see my destination, the 68-year-old prison seemed small.

This juxtaposition of an older prison and a newer logistics facility is not just about zoning and geography. It is a changing of the guard, and of the guards. Just as that Old Testament prophet Isaiah foresaw swords of war to turn into plowshares for agricultural cultivation, 21st century California realities point to a new prophecy:

No more mass incarceration, no more mass trade.

Two different trends, both accelerated by the pandemic, are working together here. The first is California’s rapidly declining prison population, reduced to less than 100,000 in recent years by court rulings, sentencing reforms and early releases to limit the spread of COVID. As a result, the state ended contracts with private prisons and decided to close some of its old public prisons.

Deuel’s disappearance, which closes at the end of September, is more than the first closure of a state prison in a generation. It also opens a prison window on the future of our landscapes, and on the singular predations of Californian progress.

The second trend is the rise of internet commerce, which has led to an increase in the construction of warehouses on cheaper land in outlying towns and along rural road corridors where many of our prisons have been built.

Over the past few months, as I toured California prisons that are likely to be closed, I have often struggled to locate the penitentiary among a plethora of logistics facilities. A case in point is the state prison most in need of closure – the criminally costly California Rehabilitation Center, which is hidden behind an ever-growing swarm of warehouses off the I -15 in Norco, Riverside County.

But the intersection of the prison and the warehouse involves people, not just land.

Prisons disproportionately house poorer, non-white Californians, the same people the warehouses disproportionately employ. Indeed, new warehouses are often the few places open to hiring people with criminal records – and more so in recent years, with progressive attitudes towards ex-offenders coinciding with a growing labor shortage.

But there is a dark side to warehouse employment: working inside these facilities can feel like jail. Employees are subject to intense monitoring and control. They can be punished or fired for being absent from work, even for breaks or to go to the bathroom.

So state lawmakers, who in previous years have struggled with prison conditions, are turning to the question of how to make warehouses feel less like prisons.

Earlier this month, the California legislature approved AB 701, a bill containing the first national warehouse regulations. If enacted by the governor, the bill would require disclosure of how companies monitor and monitor their employees.

Warehouses should disclose quotas and metrics based on work speed algorithms that they use to judge workers. Companies could no longer penalize their workers for “time off duties”, including going to the bathroom. The bill also requires the state to pass new regulations to help reduce the high rates of workplace accidents in these warehouses.

Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez, the bill’s sponsor, said she was particularly concerned about building an Amazon warehouse in Otay Mesa, east of her district of San Diego. This facility, and similar warehouses, will adjoin existing correctional facilities, including a notorious immigrant detention center (which the ACLU is trying to shut down) and the Richard J. Donovan Correction Facility, the only state prison in County of San Diego.

Back in Tracy, going down Grant Line Road, I tried to enter a few warehouses to talk to the workers, but the premises were too well guarded. Access to the closing prison was much easier. The old guard house, where passing cars must stop, was empty. And the entrance door to the prison itself was wide open, the inmates having already been relocated. After touring the property, I helped staff use computers for reuse by probation officers.

Standing there, it wasn’t hard to imagine this former prison site – and those of the 11 other state-owned prisons that are at least half a century old – turned into warehouses.

It got even easier after driving 25 minutes to Stockton, where the last state prison closed in 2003, the Northern California Women’s Facility. But I couldn’t find the site. Its old address is in the middle of distribution centers and a huge intermodal facility for logistics, where cargo is transferred from trucks to railcars (or vice versa) on its way from warehouse to warehouse.


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