A community correctional facility northeast of downtown Bakersfield that's been vacant for nearly five years took its first step toward reopening Tuesday with the unanimous vote of a three-person city board.
The Bakersfield Board of Zoning Adjustment voted 3-0 to approve a conditional use permit allowing the eventual re-opening of the former Mesa Verde Community Correctional Facility at 425 Golden State Ave. to house a yearly average of 400 minimum-security inmates.
The vote was a slam dunk, with only Assistant Public Works Director Nick Fidler, one of three city officials who comprise the board, offering comment, noting the facility's landscaping needs attention.
No one spoke in opposition to reopening the prison, and only the owner's representative, San Bernardino attorney Alicen Wong of Gresham Savage, spoke in favor.
If it reopens as expected, the site would house exactly the same number and same type of inmates the facility was approved to hold when it closed in 2009, due to lack of demand for its services.
Today, it is greatly needed.
Faced with a federal mandate to reduce its prison population, also known as realignment, state officials have begun the shifting of incarceration and supervision of non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenders to county and private facilities.
While this has resulted in the early release of some criminals and is blamed for a spike in some of last year's crime rates, Bakersfield city officials pointed out that the facility operated from its inception in 1987 to its closure with no issues -- and its reopening could generate up to 100 jobs.
"Because available space in existing detention facilities in California for local, state and federal detainees is extremely limited at the present time, resumption of the operation of the facility would benefit the public welfare," Bakersfield Principal Planner Paul Hellman said during a presentation to the board. "Regardless of what agency the operator contracts with, the facility will not be permitted to exceed minimum-security levels.
Mesa Verde's owner, Florida-based multinational prison owner and operator The GEO Group, hasn't said where inmates at the 51,000-square-foot, two-story prison would come from, but the city's report suggests county of Kern, state of California or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency inmates as likely sources.
Representatives of the county of Kern and ICE have said their agencies have no plans to house inmates in Bakersfield.
An information officer with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has said she is unaware of any talks between the CDC and GEO to bring state inmates to the city.
Wong, GEO's attorney, said getting the conditional use permit will allow the company, which owns or manages 96 correctional facilities worldwide, to negotiate contracts to bring in inmates.
"Now, with this approval, we can move forward," Wong said in an interview. "This is the linchpin."