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How two California prisons came to exist at the edge of a ‘ghost 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.

When Tulare Lake refilled this past spring, the two state prisons located in the Kings County City of Corcoran escaped flooding thanks to the levee that surrounds the city.

But how did they even come to be built in the historical lakebed, which is known to refill every few decades? That was the question asked by independent journalist Susie Cagle in a recent investigation for the non-profit newsroom The Marshall Project.

In this interview with KVPR’s Kerry Klein, Cagle begins by taking us back to conversations that happened 40 years ago.

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

SUSIE CAGLE: 1983 was the last time that Tulare Lake flooded very significantly, and that was already a time of strife and economic difficulty in the Central Valley. Automation in agriculture was reducing jobs, poverty was on the rise, and then you had this catastrophic flood that really decimated that much more work and brought that much more hardship to Corcoran and to the surrounding area. And at the same time, the state and the governor at the time was really pushing for the growth of state prisons. Corcoran was not on the list of places to put a prison and it very much volunteered itself. In 1984 and ‘85 the town started having meetings to try to court the state for this first prison, what they call Old Corcoran now, and it was really seen as a way to diversify the economy to bring more and better paying jobs and make the area less vulnerable to downturns in agriculture.

KERRY KLEIN: Right. There was a promise of economic prosperity and jobs for bringing this prison here.

CAGLE: Absolutely. And it is true that with the second prison that was added in the 90s, the Department of Corrections is the largest employer in Corcoran, but that hasn't brought the kind of prosperity that was really promised to the town originally.

KLEIN: And you also found that originally when the prisons were built, they were exempt from some environmental laws. Talk about that.

CAGLE: Yeah, so that was part of making this all go as quickly as possible. No one at the time brought up any concerns about the fact that they would be building in a floodplain. And, in fact, when they were first starting to meet about it, it had been only a few months since the last flood had been pumped out and the lake bed had been drained. And yet, because they wanted to move as quickly as possible, the Department of Corrections encouraged the town of Corcoran to specifically ask for the state to waive CEQA, the Environmental Quality Act. And the town did and Kings County did as well, and the state passed a special law to exempt the first prison in Corcoran from CEQA review. So the only environmental review that happened was an internal review that the Department of Corrections did itself and the state legislature passed that with very few “no” votes at the time.

KLEIN: Wow, how interesting. And so when I reported on this earlier this year, I was never able to obtain copies of these prisons’ emergency plans, or flood plans or evacuation plans. Did you have any more luck than I did?

CAGLE: Yes and no, it's tremendously difficult to obtain any sort of documentation about emergency planning from the Department of Corrections. They cite security concerns in preventing public access to these documents. So the documents that I was able to receive were actually through a public records request to the governor's Office of Emergency Services, and they provided what they had been forwarded from the Department of Corrections, which was a 2-phase ,14-day evacuation plan. It was several pages long. It was redacted in full, black boxes on every page covering almost every single word, but it did give us the sense that a plan did exist.

CAGLE: But what I found really surprising was that we asked the Department of Corrections about the nature of this plan, they told us that this plan in particular was put together, what they said, was for this incident. And I found that so surprising because this incident, this flood in the Tulare Lake, was something that has happened several times before. This is a known risk. The Department of Corrections has spent millions of dollars to build up the levee that protects the city of Corcoran and the two prisons. So the fact that they had not created a plan specific to this flood to evacuate the nearly 8,000 incarcerated people at these prisons until that flood actually happened was surprising.

CAGLE: So, as part of my research, I also went to the state archives in Sacramento to look for any sort of documentation around the original construction of the first prison in Corcoran and I had tremendous difficulty actually obtaining those records as well. A lot of those records even in the state archives, stuff that is decades old, is also still locked down and is considered a security risk and can't be shown to the public. And I even I requested legal review and legal review came back and said no, you can't look at this stuff. So that internal Department of Corrections environmental review that they did in the 80s where they said they looked at the flood risk and the sinking potential of building in a floodplain—can’t see it.

KLEIN: And so this is this is a really heavily research investigation. But you presented it in a way that perhaps a lot of audiences are not accustomed to—which is as an illustration, as a series of almost graphic novel-like panels and infographics.

CAGLE: Illustration in this case really provided us a way to access places and people that otherwise we would have had limited access to, people incarcerated at the two prisons in Corcoran. Illustration has a really powerful ability to create empathy. Even when you have an anonymous source that that may not be able to show their face, you can still show the rest of their body, you can show their environment, you can show other things about them. They don't just have to be a kind of black figure like you might see in a documentary film. Sometimes when people see a nonfiction story that is told in that way, they might not realize that all of those images were also deeply researched. I used a ton of reference material. Any kind of old documentary footage or photographs that I could find, every YouTube video, everything in the internet archive that depicted what the insides of those prisons looked like so that I could depict them as absolutely accurately as possible.

CAGLE: In my interviews with family members and incarcerated people at the prisons, I asked them for detailed descriptions of what their environments look like, how people spend time inside what life is like. And then I when I had used all that to actually create the drawings I was able to send those to some of the incarcerated people and ask them if these were accurate and they could kind of fact check them for me in real time. So ultimately even though I didn't bring a camera inside of these facilities, I was able to create visual documents that are still accurate to what they look like.

KLEIN: Really interesting. Well, it is really a pleasure to read and scroll through. So Susie Cagle, an independent journalist, just published this piece with The Marshall Project. Susie, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

CAGLE: Thank you, Kerry.

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.