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In a matter of months, the San Joaquin Valley flip-flopped from severe drought to severe flooding. And now, as the big snowpack in the Sierra Nevada becomes the “Big Melt” in the Valley, who’s underwater, who’s helping clean up, and what does it all mean for our region’s future? This weekly segment featuring interviews with reporters, water authorities, growers and others who live and work in the Valley explores historic flooding and its aftermath.

Water Whiplash: A ‘wake up call’ for two prisons near the edge of Tulare Lake

California State Prison, Corcoran, is one of two prisons sharing a complex near the edge of Tulare Lake.
Flickr user Steve Rhodes (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
California State Prison, Corcoran, is one of two prisons sharing a complex near the edge of Tulare Lake.

This year’s drenching winter and record-breaking snowpack have heightened awareness around the potential for floods in the San Joaquin Valley. And facilities that may have to increasingly grapple with flood risk are prisons — specifically, the two in Corcoran on the edge of Tulare Lake.

Even though flood risk has likely subsided for the prisons this year, we wanted to know: Are they prepared for floods? KVPR just published an investigative story about how a lack of transparency from the prisons has led to questions about their preparedness. And for this segment, we’re sharing more of the concerns voiced by the people interviewed for that story.

Listen to the segment in the player on this page, and read the transcript below.

KERRY KLEIN: The first questions about emergency preparedness arose during that first week of severe flooding in mid-March. A Southern California caretaker named Christine Herrera was driving to Corcoran to visit her husband. He’s incarcerated at the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility, abbreviated as SATF.

KLEIN: Herrera said the prisons never warned the community that roads were closed. She said a drive that would normally take three hours lasted more than five, as road after road dead-ended at the water’s edge.

CHRISTINE HERRERA: It was the most horrifying thing I’ve ever been through. If you've ever seen the Ten Commandments where they part the Red Sea, that's how I felt.

KLEIN: Questions about basic communication led to questions about emergencies. The state department of corrections, known as CDCR, assured inmates and their loved ones they had emergency plans in place. But they provided few details of what would actually happen in a flood, especially if they had to evacuate.

KLEIN: Joseph, who’s also incarcerated at SATF, was concerned about personal belongings, like photos and legal documents. Joseph’s not his name – KVPR agreed to give him an alias to protect him from retaliation. A CDCR spokesperson informed KVPR that inmates would have the opportunity to pack their things to be transferred later. But, not knowing that, Joseph made his own preparations.

“JOSEPH”: I'm kind of hyper vigilant. So what I've done is a copy certain legal documents and important papers and I sent them home just in case, you know certain things are lost. You know, so I'm trying to just lightweight prepare in the event they really haven't taken the time to make preparations for us.

KLEIN: Eric Henderson is a grad student at UCLA, and he co-authored a recent report on climate risks to California’s prisons. He says, there are real safety concerns about moving so many people at once, especially those with disabilities and other medical needs.

ERIC HENDERSON: what resources are they going to use for transporting people? Do they have a stockpile of clothing, medication, and other necessary materials on hand? If so, how many? Do they have defibrillators and other necessary medical supplies? Do they have the long boards where you hold people if they can't walk and they need to be evacuated and manually carried? Also, what training are they going through, and who's providing the training and how frequently are they doing the training?

KLEIN: In an email statement, CDCR says employees are receiving “incident command system” training through FEMA. The agency also says it has enough medical supplies for an evacuation, and can also contract with outside agencies for more.

KLEIN: Even with preparations in place, to Emily Harris, this all shines a light on how much is at stake for the incarcerated population. Harris is co-director of programs at the non-profit Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which commissioned the report Henderson wrote. The report listed Corcoran’s two prisons, and their 8,000 inmates, as among the most at risk for flooding.

EMILY HARRIS: All people that are incredibly vulnerable and their safety is entirely dependent on the department of corrections. And they don't personally have the ability to get to safer or dry land or to even really know what's happening in this situation. And so I think the ability to prepare for a possible flood is so much different than any of us in the free world.

KLEIN: All this is why Amanda Castellon, a criminal justice advocate in Fresno, says more communication from CDCR would have helped this stressful situation. She knows family members and friends incarcerated in Corcoran.

AMANDA CASTELLON: The family and friends are making calls to the facility, trying to get answers, trying to figure something out. They need to have some sort of explanation. Them being incarcerated and not knowing what's going to happen, if they're going to have to move hours to another facility—that alone is very stressful.

KLEIN: Even though this situation did not result in catastrophic flooding, there were fears, for months, that it would. And Emily Harris, again, of the Ella Baker Center, wants more than just transparency and communication.

HARRIS: I also think that it should be a wake-up call for the legislature. I mean the idea they're responsible for the oversight of this system and the possibility of putting 8,000 people in an incredibly dangerous situation, that's on their watch. And so I think that the folks who are responsible, who are ultimately responsible for people's well-being, we hope that they're going to take a look at all of the ways in which people are in harm's way, and we're not prepared to protect them.

KLEIN: Thanks for listening to Water Whiplash. I'm Kerry Klein. You can find the rest of this series online at KVPR dot org, which is where you can also find my other reporting about prison emergency preparedness.

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.