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If Corcoran had flooded, were its prisons prepared? Why some say more transparency is needed

California State Prison, Corcoran
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
California State Prison, Corcoran

As flood risk subsides, questions remain about whether Corcoran’s prisons were ready for an emergency – and if they’ll be prepared for a wetter winter.

CORCORAN, Calif. – Like the water surging out of the Sierra Nevada, the news of the flooding came in torrents for Joseph, who was watching the news one morning in mid-March when he saw video footage of flooded fields nearby.

“It was just every day, all day,” Joseph said, “showing how the flooding was just taking over so much.”

Joseph is one of 8,000 men incarcerated within two state prisons outside of the Kings County city of Corcoran. Joseph isn’t his real name – he’s using an alias for fear of retaliation. He’s incarcerated at the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran (SATF), and he’s speaking out against prison administration.

It was through those news reports at the time, watched on 15-inch television screens in prison bunkbeds – not official announcements from prison administrators – that Joseph says he and many other inmates learned about the historic floodwaters that had begun to fill Tulare Lake for the first time in decades.

The flooding had led the city of Corcoran to declare a state of emergency and images showed water had reached agricultural fields just across the street from the prison complex a few days after Saint Patrick’s Day.

 The Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison is one of two state prisons in a complex on the outskirts of Corcoran, Calif.
Flickr user Steve Rhodes, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Flickr user Steve Rhodes, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison is one of two state prisons in a complex on the outskirts of Corcoran.

At that time, it was unclear whether the levee that surrounds much of Corcoran would keep the rising floodwaters at bay. And yet, for weeks, said Joseph, administrators never acknowledged the potential for flooding, or explained what to do in case of an emergency.

“It’s concerning to me not knowing what will happen,” he said. “Not knowing that if we are required to evacuate, is it going to be at a minute's notice? Are we going to be allowed to take all of our belongings?”

Months after those initial reports, forecasters now predict that Tulare Lake has peaked in size, and the risk of flooding has likely subsided for Corcoran and its prisons. But if the worst had happened, how would the state prison system have responded?

The answer is unclear.

Outdated emergency plans, growing risks

Some emergency plans and planning language for the state prison system are years out of date. Even though the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, known as CDCR, is preparing new plans and has stated that inmates would be taken care of in an emergency, incarcerated men and their loved ones say they have not been informed of many details.

That has left some to wonder if the prisons were prepared for an emergency at all – and if they’ll be ready in a wetter year with the potential for more extreme flooding.

The concern comes as storm after storm and record-breaking Sierra snowpack heightened awareness of the San Joaquin Valley’s flood risk, even after years of drought. In a recent Youtube video, UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain predicted that wet winters could become even wetter.

“We could see widespread, record-breaking or extreme rainfall moving forward,” Swain said.

Corcoran lies at the edge of Tulare Lake, a historical body of water that for centuries submerged hundreds of square miles across Kings and parts of Tulare and Kern Counties.

By the early 20th century, the lake had largely dried up following the construction of dams, canals and levees in order to store and divert the water for agricultural use. The lake bottom has since been redeveloped, largely for agricultural commodities like cotton, tomatoes and pistachios, but the lake reemerges every few decades in extremely wet years.

According to FEMA flood maps, parts of Corcoran’s two prisons lie within the highest flood risk designation, which signifies a one-percent-annual flood risk.

Although the Corcoran levee and other flood protection structures have protected the city and its prisons from significant flooding so far, researchers and advocates warn that level of protection could change along with the climate.

“This is not a question of if this will happen–it's when,” said Eric Henderson, a graduate student at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs who recently co-authored a report on climate risks to California’s state prisons for the non-profit Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

A copy of the report published by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

The report lists SATF and California State Prison, Corcoran, as two of five state prisons at high risk of flooding.

The report also details the challenges that its authors met in obtaining emergency planning documents from CDCR, and raises concerns that the agency’s lack of transparency reflects a lack of emergency preparedness.

The report reads: “The lack of information and contradictions on CDCR’s emergency planning has brought about the following concerns among our interviewees and survey respondents: 1) CDCR’s response to a climate hazard will be as reactive and tragic as it was during COVID-19. 2) CDCR will defer to its usual response of locking down the prison or ‘sheltering in place,’ which can lead to injury and death for incarcerated people.”

During the pandemic, more than two hundred inmates across California died amid some of the largest prison outbreaks in the country.

According to Henderson, withholding key elements of emergency plans “not only puts incarcerated people in harm's way, it also puts community members and the resources from our state in harm's way as well.”

For example, in an emergency, Corcoran’s 14,000 other residents would presumably be scrambling to evacuate along the same, few routes out of the city.

Henderson said he and his co-authors are seeking details that could reassure inmates that they’d be taken care of in an emergency evacuation, for instance a plan for getting information to families outside of prison, assurances that personal belongings would be safeguarded, and a guarantee that medically vulnerable inmates would have the supplies necessary for transportation.

CDCR says it is updating its plans

In an email statement, CDCR spokesperson Mary Xjimenez addressed some of these concerns. She said the prisons are well stocked with medical supplies, but if necessary, they also have plans to contract with outside agencies for more. She also said inmates would be able to pack up their belongings to be transported to them later.

But citing security concerns, CDCR has denied multiple public records requests for their emergency plans themselves – for Corcoran’s two prisons and for the agency as a whole.

David Loy, legal director of the non-profit First Amendment Coalition, said it’s certainly plausible that some details of those plans could pose a security risk to incarcerated people or the public. However, even if some parts of a report are exempt from public view, he said, others, like the table of contents, publication date, and list of author agencies, should be reasonably accessible.

“The default rule is transparency,” he said. “Anything which is subject to disclosure in a document must be disclosed, even if other parts of that document can be redacted and withheld.”

In a recent report of its own, CDCR acknowledged its agency-wide emergency plans were out of date by more than a decade.

“Existing CDCR emergency planning documents were prepared in 2012,” including a Continuity of Operations/Continuity of Government Plan and All-Hazards Emergency Operations Plan, reads the 2021 report signed by former CDCR director Kathleen Allison.

“Relying on outdated plans and strategies to manage emergencies throughout the state's critical infrastructure can result in mishandling of our response to large and small scale events, and potentially create a safety risk for CDCR,” the report continues.

Xjimenez, CDCR spokesperson, confirmed to KVPR that an outside contractor has prepared newer versions of those emergency plans but they have not yet been published.

Emergency-related language in CDCR’s agency-wide operations manual is also out of date.

The section on evacuation and emergency management, written in 1990, stipulates that all prisons must prepare emergency plans and submit them to the California Highway Patrol (CHP) every two years.

A public records request to CHP confirmed the agency has never received emergency plans from either prison in Corcoran. Xjimenez pointed out that the state has changed its emergency planning procedures a few times since then.

“CHP used to review and approve ‘emergency plans’ for all state government offices and facilities…This is no longer the case,” she said.

Concerns are personal

Earth movers transport dirt in May 2023 along the Corcoran levee, which is being raised from an elevation of 188 feet to 192 feet to protect the city against the rising Tulare Lake.
Kerry Klein
Earth movers transport dirt in May 2023 along the Corcoran levee, which was raised from an elevation of 188 feet to 192 feet to protect the city against the rising Tulare Lake.

To loved ones of those incarcerated in Corcoran, even basic communication from the prisons has been lacking. Two women KVPR spoke to about their incarcerated family members said that prison administrators never issued any public notices about road closures, even as Tulare Lake swallowed up more than 100,000 acres of agricultural lands and roads around Corcoran.

As of late June, three months after Tulare Lake re-emerged, neither CDCR’s Facebook nor Instagram pages have made any mention of flooding around Corcoran, nor has CDCR acknowledged flood risk in any press releases.

Michael, an inmate at SATF whose last name KVPR agreed to withhold due to his concerns for retaliation, says a loved one driving to visit him was delayed for hours by unexpected road closures during the first weekend of flooding. To him, this failure of communication from the prison served as another indication that the incarcerated population is overlooked.

He said he felt that way after hearing remarks directly from the governor. In May, Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged millions to help local authorities bolster the levee that protects Corcoran.

A governor’s office statement referred to the prisons as “critical infrastructure” in need of protecting, and in a media call, a spokesperson said the prisons would be “extremely costly to evacuate and also potentially impact public safety.”

In all those commitments, Michael said he never heard concern for incarcerated men themselves — only for the prohibitive costs of evacuating them.

“I think they admitted it, it’s about the money. It would cost too much money to move everybody,” he said. “It’s shocking.”

Michael hopes he never has to learn the true consequences – and costs – of evacuating his prison.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Corcoran is located near the bottom of the Tulare Lake basin. Corcoran's elevation is currently around 20 feet higher than the lake bottom.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.