Funding Jail Expansion in California’s Central Valley

In California’s Central Valley, as in many rural places and small cities across the country, counties have been investing in expanded local carceral infrastructure—bigger jails to facilitate rising incarceration. And county jail construction, like the state’s prison boom, has been a state-led project. In most states, jail construction costs are paid for by the counties, but in California, jail construction is heavily subsidized by the state. The state has given its counties $4 billion to build or expand local jails since 1983, funding that has increased the ability to incarcerate at the local level in the face of both statewide opposition to prison construction and local opposition to jail expansion. The state has been subsidizing new county jails that are, in many cases, assumed to be improved because they are new. As John Prince, director of county jail construction for the Board of State and Community Corrections said, “It’s not [just] about building more beds; in this case, it’s about building more, better beds.”

In 1978, after California voters approved Proposition 13, which put a stringent cap on property taxes and limited local capacity to issue government debt, county officials were unable to easily finance capital infrastructure. Elected officials, led by State Senator Robert Presley, a former Riverside County sheriff's deputy, devised a solution: a series of legislative ballot measures to authorize state general obligation bonds to fund local infrastructure. The first of these was put on the general election ballot in 1982 and raised $500 million for public schools and $280 million for local jails. In total, statewide ballot measures set aside $1.5 billion for county jail construction in the 1980s—$4.5 billion in today’s dollars. According to a 1996 Board of Corrections report to the legislature on the jail construction fund, the program was responsible for a 123 percent increase in county jail capacity, from 31,824 to 70,858. A subsequent state legislative program from 2007 to present has dedicated $2.5 billion to build county jail capacity across the state to hold 14,939 people.

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Mural in Kings County, California | Photo by Jack Norton

Kings is an agricultural county in the Central Valley with a population of around 153,000, dominated by large agribusiness. California built three prisons in the county between 1987 and 1997: one in Avenal in 1987 and two in Corcoran, in 1989 and then in 1997, which Ruth Wilson Gilmore wrote about in detail in Golden Gulag, her genre-defining study of the political economy of mass incarceration in California. This past year, Kings County had a high rate of COVID-19 cases relative to other counties in California, in part because of outbreaks in the state prisons. The county has also had the highest local jail incarceration rate in California for decades. Kings has been building new county jails since the early 1980s, and most of that infrastructure has been, like the state prisons, funded by the state of California rather than by the local county government. “If things keep going as they are,” mused Kings County Administrative Officer Milton D. McCoy in 1985, “we’ll just build a big concrete wall around the county and call it a jail.”

The Kings County minimum-security jail was built in 1986 on the west side of Hanford, the county seat, a small city of 58,000. The county first included plans for a new jail in an application for state funding in 1981. The application was not approved, however, because the Board of Corrections believed that the county was “artificially overcrowding” its jail to strengthen the case for jail expansion. Sheriff Tom Clark then found a way to cram between 64 to 96 more bunks into existing jail space without threatening funding eligibility. The county was incarcerating increasing numbers of poor people: by June 1985, 42 percent of the people in the jail were charged with DUI, 73 percent of people booked into the jail were unemployed, and Kings County had the highest jail incarceration rate in California.

When Kings County built the new jail in 1986 for $3.4 million, half of the money was provided by the state. The new jail had an annual operating cost of $1 million, and in FY1986, the year it opened, the county ran a $2.2 million deficit. As the project was coming to a close, a joint committee of the American Institute of Architects and the American Correctional Association described the facility as an “outstanding example” of a “new generation” jail and gave the architect Patrick Sullivan an award for the design. California later gave Kings County $2.2 million to remodel the old jail, originally built in 1964. The remodeled jail opened in 1990, and the incarceration rate grew from 536 per 100,000 people in 1990 to 759 per 100,000 people in 1991, more than double the state average.

In 2000, Kings County Sheriff Ken Marvin attempted to fund another new jail through a local sales tax measure, but the plan was defeated at the polls. After two more failed attempts at funding the new jail through local sales tax measures, county officials figured out a way to circumvent the need for a local ballot: by using tobacco settlement money.

In the 1990s, the major U.S. tobacco companies agreed to pay states billions of dollars in fines as part of a multi-state settlement of lawsuits that sought recovery for tobacco-related health care costs. In California, each county got a share of the money, and many counties directed it toward health-related expenses. For example, Orange County has a voter-approved requirement that 80 percent of tobacco settlement payments go to health care. But in Kings County, local officials traded more than 20 years of future tobacco settlement payments meant for health care for $18 million in cash from the bond market to build a new jail. Because the county was not technically going into debt—just foregoing future settlement payments—the board of supervisors was able to legally circumvent voter approval. The circumvention, however, was expensive. When the tobacco bond ends in 2023, $15 million in interest will have gone to the investors on top of the principal, which means that the county will have paid an effective 6.5 percent rate for the money. This interest rate is 2.3 percentage points higher than the rate on offer in the municipal bond market when Kings County issued lease revenue bonds in 2005 for the $11.4 million needed to finish building the new jail. Robert Thayer, assistant sheriff of Kings County, was forthcoming about what happened next. “You know,” he said, “‘If they build it. . . . [the jail] got to capacity, and then beyond capacity.” The average daily number of people incarcerated in the Kings County Jail grew 40 percent from 2005 to 2008, from 289 to 405.

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Kings County Jail | Photo by Jack Norton

The 2011 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata required California to release people from overcrowded state prisons in order to adhere to the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. The state then shifted large numbers of people from prison to county jails with a policy called the Public Safety Realignment Initiative, or simply, “realignment.” California devolved part of its carceral system to the county level, moving people convicted of so-called nonviolent, non-sexual, non-serious crimes—people who would have previously been sent to state prison—to local jails. The state had already authorized funding for local jails in a 2007 bill, AB 900, and Kings County was ready with an application for the first round of funding.

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After state-funded expansions of the Kings County Jail in both 2016 and 2018, the jail population had grown to 576 people by February 2020. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kings County Jail population declined 26 percent between late February and early June 2020, to 429 people, even though many counties in the state cut their jail populations by half during the same period. According to our analysis of California's Board of State and Community Corrections’ data on jails, counties that have built jails in recent years on average released fewer people from jail in response to the coronavirus, suggesting that increased political and economic investment in incarceration at the local level leads to local political reluctance to decarcerate, even in the face of statewide zero-dollar bail orders during the pandemic. As of August 2020, the Kings County Jail incarceration rate was two-and-a-half times higher than that of Los Angeles County.

Moreover, in Kings County, as in other Central Valley counties with state prisons, both the district attorney’s and sheriff’s budgets are subsidized by the state Department of Corrections. Typically, jails and prosecutors are funded primarily from county budgets. But when someone is charged with a crime while locked up, visiting someone, or working in a state prison, the state pays the county sheriff to hold the person in jail pending trial and pays the county district attorney to prosecute the case. This has allowed the Kings County District Attorney to staff a large and dedicated prison desk—attorneys who prosecute people arrested at the state prisons—directly aligning the prosecutors with the interests of prison guards. Between FY2008 and FY2019, the prison desk constituted 23 percent of total district attorney revenue, and 13 percent of the overall district attorney budget. The guards’ union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, has been a major player in county district attorney elections statewide and was instrumental in defeating incumbent district attorneys twice in Kings County since 1998. These state prison policies have concentrated resources in local sheriff’s and DA’s offices, strengthening the role of jails in prison towns.

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Corcoran, California | Photo by Jack Norton

Local officials have various understandings of the how incarceration rates remain so high in their county. Joe Neves has been a member of the Kings County Board of Supervisors since 1994. Neves runs his family farming and trucking business, and he explains the Central Valley’s high jail incarceration rates in terms of proactive policing: “We're invested in the progressive technology of fingerprinting and IDs,” he said. “We keep better track of the people here. . . . A DUI offender that stopped off and had a beer, here we know the car, know where they live, know where to find them. In urban areas, police are more reactive, whereas over here, we're proactive with . . . policing for public safety.”

Robert Thayer, assistant sheriff in Kings County, explains the high jail incarceration rate as a result of the prisons built during the construction boom of the 1980s and 1990s. Thayer’s explanations of high local incarceration rates in Kings County are racially coded in geography, highlighting the ways in which California’s prison building program has remade urban-rural relations in the state. “You’d be surprised at how many inmates that we have in our jail that rolled straight out of Corcoran State prison,” he said. “They could have been in prison for kidnapping, but they punched a guard, and now they finished their time for kidnapping, and this person from South Central Los Angeles, or Oakland, or someplace somewhere that has a significant violent history, is now in our little Kings County Jail. Those impacts spawned a cancer in our county that we are still dealing with: high incarceration rates.”

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New South County Detention Facility, Tulare County, California | Photo by Jack Norton

Big city incarceration rates have dropped in recent years, while incarceration rates have been rising in rural counties and smaller cities. In California, activists and voters in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara have defeated jail construction proposals.

Yet because local jail expansion is a state-level project in California, delaying jail plans in one county often can result in jail expansion elsewhere in the state. When Santa Barbara County cancelled plans for a new jail in 2015, the state funding was moved to the Central Valley, where San Joaquin County received $32 million for a new jail south of Stockton. Tulare County, to the east of Kings, received an additional $6.5 million to build another jail—the South County Detention Facility—near Porterville, a small city of about 60,000 people.

For the South County Detention Facility, which opened in 2019 and allows the county to hold 519 people in jail cells at the edge of a field on the outskirts of town, California gave Tulare County a total of $60 million. Tulare is just one of 24 counties that built a jail in the last decade using state money. “Once we got into the design process,” a spokesperson for the Tulare Sheriff department said, “we realized prices were going up exponentially because there were so many jails being built up and down the state.”

California is subsidizing the cages Tulare and other counties build under the guise of progressive, or better, outcomes. In an interview in the new jail parking lot, Mike Ennis, retired county supervisor for Tulare County, explained that the opportunity to expand the county’s jail system came in the wake of realignment in California. “They wanted to ramp down their state prisons,” he said, “get their inventory—I mean get their numbers—down there and move them. And let me tell you, when those people come to a county jail, they don't want to come back. We don't have exercise rooms, we don't have weight rooms, we don't have TVs. They have that little cell in there they go in, and that's it.”

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Kern Valley State Prison, built in 2005, Delano, California | Photo by Jack Norton

High incarceration rates and decades of investment in jails and prisons—including using funding designated for tobacco-related health care costs to build a new jail—have left Kings, like many rural counties across the country, in a poor position in the face of a public health crisis. According to New York Times data, in late June 2020, Kings County was the number two per capita hotspot for COVID-19 cases in California, in large part due to uncontrolled outbreaks in the state prisons. As of October 2020, in the three state prisons in Kings County, 3,538 people had tested positive for COVID-19, and eight people had died. There has only been minimal testing for COVID-19 at the Kings County Jail.

In three decades, California built two dozen prisons and 16 community corrections facilities. Most of these were built in the Central Valley, between Sacramento and Bakersfield, one of the most productive agricultural regions on the planet. Although California’s prison building project ended in 2005, since that time, counties up and down the state have built new and bigger jails through a state-funded, locally implemented carceral expansion project.

There is an ongoing jail boom in the United States—quiet and seemingly decentralized—as county governments invest to expand their capacity to lock people up. Much of this construction is happening in rural areas and small cities, where jail incarceration rates have been rising over the past decades. Prison lights still brighten the night sky among the fields and orchards of the Central Valley, as they do in fields and forests across the country. The newest Kings County Jail sits next to suburban style homes, the jail’s beige walls forming the horizon of their backyards.

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Behind the Kings County Jail, Hanford, California | Photo by Jack Norton