In his International and Public Affairs (IAPA) senior seminar, Prison Abolition as Policy, Watson Family University Associate Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs John Eason and his students tackled a major policy issue in the United States — prison abolition — in a unique, hands-on manner.
Blythe, California and the great prison bust
The city of Blythe, California is facing a crisis. One of two prisons in the town, the Chuckawalla Valley State Prison (CVSP), often colloquially referred to as "Chuck," is scheduled for closure. "It's a town of 18,000 and it's losing over 800 jobs," said Eason. While he is supportive of policies that reduce the need for prisons, Eason maintains closures must be done in a way that protects the communities that house them. "We have to understand how to close prisons responsibly," he said.
In his work, Eason has explored the community dynamics surrounding prison openings and closures, especially in rural communities where a large percentage of the local economy centers around them.
Blythe is anything but unique in facing the fallout from a prison closure. Between 1970 and 2000, the number of prison facilities in the U.S. tripled with more than 1,200 prisons opening during the period. But what was once a booming industry has since gone bust and since 2000, more prisons in the U.S. have closed than have opened, a trend that is expected to continue. Eason's class also worked with the city of Susanville in Northern California where the California Correctional Center closed in June 2023 after a protracted legal battle with the state.
Blythe, which Eason noted is a majority-minority city, is located in the Palo Verde Valley directly abutting Arizona. The economic impact of the prison on the city is significant. "Chuckawalla is the second largest employer in the city," noted Eason. Its largest employer is the city's other prison, Ironwood State Prison. In total, more than 2,000 people in Blythe work in the state's prison system.
With so many jobs at stake, Eason noted that the prison closure is a "potential catastrophe" but also can be seen as "a real opportunity." But with CVSP's anticipated closure date set at March 2025, the city has little time to find economically viable alternatives.
With this in mind, Eason, in collaboration with the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center and Office of Race and Equity Research, where he serves as a senior fellow, and his class contracted to serve as policy advisors to the city of Blythe as they seek to mitigate the harmful effects of the prison closure and maximize the new opportunities opened by it.
Eason said he expected his students to take their work seriously and treat their tasks as they would a job. To be admitted to the class, Eason said "Each student had to interview for a position as if they were interviewing for a job because the city of Blythe is our client and we are offering them consulting services." While the services the class provided were offered free of charge, Eason noted that he was determined to create a "real-life working relationship" with the city.
Instead of a final exam, Eason's class culminated with a presentation to the Blythe City Council, offering them advice on how to best deal with the prison closure. At the start of the presentation, Eason expressed pride in his students, "any of the students you'll hear from this evening could easily serve as policy analysts at the Urban Institute or other Washington D.C. think tanks," he told the council.
Eason stated, "Given the real-world implications of our findings and the nature of this project being a natural experiment as the town awaits closure in 2025, the learning space is incredibly dynamic and sometimes unpredictable. This provides the backdrop for an exciting, ever-changing learning experience, or as I tell students this is a 'choose your own adventure' course".
News of the prison closure was not generally welcome in Blythe, and Eason noted that some of the city's most vociferous critics of the closure came from its large minority population. "A number of people of color participated and even had leadership roles in the 'Save Chuck' campaign," Eason noted. "The fact that there are black and brown people participating in social movements to keep prisons open is really interesting," he said, as it runs counter to the narrative that minorities are strictly victims of the prison system and overwhelmingly want to see them closed.
"We tend to think of the places where prisons are located as overwhelmingly white, poor and Republican," said Eason, "But there are a lot of counterintuitive ways that prison building has benefited Democratic agendas for people of color." Eason noted that one-third of people working as correctional officers and working in prisons and jails are Black. "And those are pretty good jobs in terms of pay and benefits, especially compared to some of the alternatives. So it's a matter of finding better alternatives," he said.
While Eason and the class remained neutral on the question of whether CVSP should close, he noted that members of the city council expressed hope the class's research could provide evidence to bolster arguments to keep the prison open.
For research purposes, Eason broke the class into two groups: a qualitative team and a quantitative team.
The qualitative team, comprised of ten students — Mofifolu Akinola, Ashley Amparo, Victor Beck, Sophia Block, Nya Grantham, Ruhma Khawaja, Serena Levin, Tyler Melwani, Amanda Page and Ariana Zwern — conducted interviews with stakeholders in the town using "community-engaged methods."
The quantitative team, comprised of eight students — Jared Dunn, Matt Grady, Sarah Ogundare, Jackson Powers, Diyarhi Roy, Sam Theoharis, Elliot Urgent and Ellis Ward — analyzed the data collected by the quantitative team and devised policy recommendations.
The qualitative team conducted interviews with numerous stakeholders in the city including, educators, business owners, municipal employees, chamber of commerce members, a member of the police department and a farm owner. The quantitative team analyzed the data collected by the quantitative team, along with other data and case studies, to make policy recommendations to the council.
City council meeting
The class reported their findings to the Blythe City Council on December 7, 2023.
Members of the qualitative team reported what they learned from the interviews they conducted with stakeholders in the city, including how central the city's two prisons are to the community's economy and culture. Many families in the community have worked in the prisons for generations, and the jobs in prisons tend to be highly desirable with some residents having moved to the city specifically to work in them. During the interviews, students learned there is a long waitlist for people hoping to find employment in the prisons.
Students also reported that the presence of the prisons has contributed to class conflict in the community. Some residents complained about family members of inmates relocating to the city, an outcome they found less than desirable as they maintain it leads to higher crime rates and strains the city's resources. Also, because prison jobs, on average, pay better than other jobs available in the city, there is a sense among some residents that those who work in them consider themselves better than the rest of the community.
Many members of the community expressed frustration with the state's decision to close CVSP with much of the blame placed directly on Governor Gavin Newsome. There was a strong perception that Blythe was targeted arbitrarily without being given sufficient notice to develop alternative solutions.
The quantitative team delivered its policy recommendations to the council and offered advice on how Blythe can navigate the closure while "uplifting the community and generating economic revenue." Recommendations included investing in the community's natural resources and promoting tourism, investing in public safety and public health, investing in renewable energy, and utilizing the city's airport for freight.
The team had three specific recommendations as to how the prison facility could be repurposed: Converting it into a commercial warehouse, a renewable energy center, or a data center. They noted that these solutions have been successfully implemented in other communities where they drew new investment and revenue and reduced the economic impact of prison closures.