The City of Chino has been joined by three agencies in a lawsuit filed Friday against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation over a 50-bed mental health crisis facility proposed at the men’s prison.
The men’s prison, called the California Institution for Men built in 1941, is located at 14901 Central Ave. at the end of Chino Hills Parkway.
The City of Chino Hills, the County of San Bernardino, and the Chino Valley Fire District each held special closed-session meetings this past week to approve the lawsuit.
The Chino City Council approved the lawsuit during closed session at the May 7 council meeting.
Each of the parties are being represented by their own legal counsel, said Chino Hills city attorney Mark Hensley.
The filing of the legal action is under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), he said.
The agencies scrambled to authorize the lawsuit during special sessions in order to meet a June 7 CEQA deadline because the final environmental impact report was certified May 8.
Curt Hagman, chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors who represents Chino and Chino Hills, said the board voted unanimously during an emergency item called on Tuesday.
“For decades, Chino Valley has been doing its part for the state’s corrections system,” he said. “The current facilities are in need of repair and replacement.”
He said there has been an increase in prison incidents over the last few years and the City of Chino is fighting the state on the environmental impact to the local area.
Chino City Manager Matt Ballantyne was joined by a delegation of officials from Chino, Chino Hills, and the fire district to meet with Corrections Department Secretary Ralph Diaz in Sacramento May 23.
Mr. Ballantyne said the intent of the meeting was to seek an agreement that would place a hold on the June 7 deadline to allow further discussions about the project.
“We are seeking mitigation measures to make sure the facility is secure and hopefully develop an agreement between us and the State of California,” he said.
He noted that the original square footage of the mental health facility in the draft document was 61,000-square-feet but when the final document was released, it had expanded.
The new proposal is a two-story, 69,000-square-foot facility. In 2018, it was proposed as a 48,000-square-foot facility.
As the design process progressed, the Corrections Department arranged the interior to achieve an improved therapeutic environment flexible enough to serve inmate patients in mental health crisis and those experiencing other levels or degrees of mental illness, according to the final document.
Other reasons for the expansion included staff and inmate security needs, compliance with state building codes and secure areas for inmate transport to the site.
The final document specified that the increase of square footage did not change the number of beds, planned staffing, or parking demands, and that the facility is not planned for long-term inmate housing and treatment.
Chino Valley Fire District Chief Tim Shackelford said the fire board voted unanimously to support Chino in filing the lawsuit during a special meeting Monday.
“The hope is to enter into an agreement to fully address our concerns, but the litigation is a placeholder,” he said. “It’s far better to sit at a table than in a courtroom.”
Chief Shackelford said the environmental impact report did not adequately evaluate the increased demand on services provided by the fire district.
“The report shows the increase to be nominal and we feel that a facility with 50 inmates in mental crisis will have more than a nominal impact on calls for service,” the chief said. “It takes our people away from serving the community.”
The prison’s fire department does not provide emergency medical care.
Chino Police Captain Wes Simmons said the police department is concerned about the construction of a level four mental health facility inside a level two yard, with level one being the least secure for low-risk inmates and four being the most secure designed for high-risk inmates.
Capt. Simmons said the yard is already in a deteriorating condition caused by decades of neglect and deferred maintenance and does not have the security precautions needed for level four inmates.
While acknowledging that the prison requires on-going maintenance and repairs and that the Corrections Department must work within the funds allocated by the annual state budget, the final report made it clear that “this is an issue that is separate and apart from the proposed project.”
In response to public safety concerns surrounding the transport of inmates to and from the facility, the document stated that vans are outfitted with a secure holding enclosure and only qualified correctional officers may operate the vehicles. If inmate patients pose a higher security risk, a second vehicle will accompany the van containing armed officers.
According to the document, such vans already operate on a regular basis because of the existing 34-bed mental health crisis program in the prison’s infirmary in Facility D.
The mental health crisis facility will be built directly adjacent to the infirmary and will be encircled with a 12-foot high fence topped with razor wire.
The existing 34 beds are unlicensed for mental care, according to the report, and will revert to medical treatment once the new facility is built.
“The prison is old,” said Chino Hills Councilman Ray Marquez, who serves on the citizens advisory committee for both the men’s and women’s prisons. “We need to bring it up to modern standards for the safety of our community before moving forward.”
He spoke about a 2018 incident when an inmate escaped through a broken fence, stole a car from a security guard at NFI Industries just south of the prison, led officers on a pursuit in Chino Hills, crashed near the Chino Hills State Park, and got as far as Encinitas before he was captured.
According to Vicky Waters, press secretary with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Secretary Diaz is always open to meeting with stakeholders, especially as it pertains to public safety concerns.
She said the project is slated to be discussed at the June 14 Public Works Board meeting in the State Capitol in Sacramento.
According to the agenda for consent item 3, topics to be discussed include recognizing a scope change, recognizing an anticipated deficit, approval of preliminary plans, and recognizing revised project costs.
To review the agenda, visit: spwb.ca.gov/ and click on the blue link to the right called “6-14-19 meeting notice.”