JOE MATHEWS: Turning prisons into warehouses | Opinion


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 near Tracy, San Joaquin County. The closure this month of Deuel, the first state prison to close in a generation, opens a window into the peculiar predations of California progress.

On my way to this human warehouse, I had to walk a thoroughfare bordered by another breed of warehouse: massive logistics facilities. Along Grant Line Road were massive Amazon warehouses, distribution centers for Home Depot and US Foods, and facilities for third-party logistics companies NFI and APL, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The largest warehouse, still under construction near the prison, looked twice as tall 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 a former prison and a new logistics facility is a changing of the guard. Just as the biblical prophet Isaiah foresaw the transformation of swords into plowshares for agricultural cultivation, California realities of the 21st century point to a new prophecy:

No more mass incarceration, no more mass trade.

Two different trends, both accelerated by the pandemic, are now working together. First, California’s rapidly declining prison population – the product of court rulings, sentencing reforms and early inmate releases to limit the spread of COVID – allows the state to consider closing older prisons . Second, the rise of e-commerce has inspired a wave of warehouse construction on cheaper land in outlying towns and along rural road corridors where many of our prisons have been built.

In recent months, as I drive to California prisons targeted for possible closure, I have often struggled to locate the penitentiary among seas of logistics facilities.

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 intensive monitoring and control. They can be punished or fired for taking time off work, even going 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 with the first nationwide warehouse regulations. If enacted by the governor, the bill would require warehouses to disclose quotas and metrics based on work speed algorithms that they use to judge workers. Companies could no longer penalize their workers for “leave duties”, including breaks. The bill also empowers the state to pass new regulations to help work-related 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 share Otay Mesa with a notorious immigrant detention center (which the ACLU is trying to shut down) and the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Center, the only state prison in San Diego County.

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 that this former prison site along I-5 – and those in the 11 other state 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 where freight moves from trucks to railcars (or vice versa) on the way from warehouse to warehouse.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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