Incarceration As Economic Development
DESERT HOT SPRINGS, CA –Building a regional jail at the entrance to the resort cities of the Coachella Valley was universally opposed by business and community interests who pointed out a proposed jail was not good for business and tourism. A city mayor that does not agree is suggesting the jail should be built in her city.
At a recent candidate interview before the editorial board of The Desert Sun, Desert Hot Springs Mayor Yvonne Parks generated astonishment when she resurrected and endorsed the idea to build the 7,200 bed facility once proposed for Whitewater in Desert Hot Springs.
Mayor challenger John-Paul Valdez, also in attendance at the interview, expressed his indignation at her suggestion.
Councilman Adam Sanchez, also in attendance at the interview, said he views a correctional facility in the city as creating a negative image for the city and he does not support the idea.
Parks, Sanchez and Valdez are locked in a three way race for Mayor.
Old Idea Rejected
Moving the 7,200 bed regional jail to Desert Hot Springs was first floated by former City Manager Rick Daniels two years ago when debate over the project’s impact so consumed Palm Springs politics that it swept Palm Springs Councilman Paul Lewin into a council seat and divided County supervisors.
Lewin nearly single handily carried forward the position that building the facility at Whitewater, a strategic tourism gateway to the greater Palm Springs area, would be ruinous to hoteliers, restaurants and the Valley’s image.
Lewin pointed out and the business and tourism industry universally agreed that a jail, especially one that will be a long-term correctional facility, will forever negatively brand Palm Springs, countering the millions spent on marketing the resort destination. Desert Hot Springs hoteliers took the same view.
Palm Springs Prison
Headlines could not be avoided that woul mention a Palm Springs Prison every time a newspaper reported about someone awaiting trial or serving their sentence at the facility. It is a problem Indio has faced for years with the Larson Justice Center in its jurisdiction.
Just a few years ago Desert Hot Springs was swept of criminals, putting a big dent in crime. The proposal by Parks would be to build thousands of beds in her city to house those very same types of criminals.
It’s About Jobs?
While it appears her announcement was intended to win her the endorsement of the The Desert Sun editorial board, it is a confounding position to take in the middle of an election campaign. Her position was an attempt at economic development.
What Parks failed to mention in floating the idea is that that there is no means to mandate that locally employed prison guards to live in any particular city. Parks sees the prison – she calls it a jail – as a way to generate high paying guard jobs in her city.
But as Lewin pointed out during the heated debate three years ago, the last place prison guards want to live is in a city where the prison they work is located.
There is a reason for that, said Lewin. Families with incarcerated family members move near the jail to be closer on visiting day. Those families, almost always of very limited income, seek out communities with the lowest housing costs in the area. That’s Desert Hot Springs.
So far the Whitewater proposal is going nowhere. Riverside County Supervisors realized that the expense to build a hub jail as the Whitewater facility was envisioned would limit the ability to build much needed additional beds any time soon. Estimates are that 10,000 beds are needed in the next 15 years.
Over the last three years instead of piling money into the Whitewater facility, the Supervisors began construction to expand jail bed space at existing facilities.
Jail or Shopping Mall
Faced with what to do with land in Whitewater the Supervisors specifically purchased for the facility, Supervisors hired an outside consultant to again evaluate the hub jail concept and specifically how that approach fits into the long-range public safety plans, according to The Desert Sun.
In separate meetings, however, those Supervisors are also looking at alternative plans for the real estate that has seen significant new commercial interest, most notably a major expansion of the Outlet Mall near the site.
As a campaign election issue, Yvonne Parks’ idea of a prison for Desert Hot Springs seems not to escaped any farther than inside of The Desert Sun building where Parks expressed support for the idea. Her support was in response to a question asked by the editorial board, a meeting that was recorded.
So far, Yvonne Parks is the only candidate in the election to support building a long term county corrections facility in Desert Hot Springs.
One thing is certain. Should Mayor Parks succeed in changing the proposed location, if Lewin and tourism industry experts are correct, the project would no longer be referred to as the Whitewater Regional Correction Facility but as the Desert Hot Springs Regional Correction Facility.
For over 40 years Dean has been published in a variety of small newspapers and magazines. As publisher he founded an alternative city weekly newspaper in 2008 and published over 200 uninterrupted issues over 4 years to over 20,000 readers via 800 locations (and online) before selling the business.
Dean is a Master Carpenter and the author of the biography of Hilda M Gray, desert homesteader.
In 2014 he was appointed Planning Commissioner for the city of Desert Hot Springs, California.
Dean M Gray is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors and lives in Desert Hot Springs, California.