A symbolic step in Chowchilla, as a worker removed the words "for women" from the entrance sign at what's now Valley state prison. This move outside the gate reflects a change now underway behind the walls. Female inmates are moving to two of the four yards to make room for the male inmates who will start arriving soon.
"There's a plan in place that we're going to keep the inmates separated by facility so there will be no contact with the men and women," Lt. Gregory Bergersen said. "The men will be escorted everywhere they go until it becomes it male facility."
Lieutenant Gregory Bergersen says staff members are also going through extra training to prepare for the men, but the infrastructure changes are minimal. Officials estimate the cost at about $100 thousand.
Lt. Bergersen explained, "Mostly everything is in place so for the type of male inmate we're receiving, we're pretty structurally sound."
The state says it's converting this facility to ease overcrowding in the men's prisons. Plus, the number of female inmates is dwindling under assembly bill 109, which sends non-serious offenders to county jails instead. Officials say VSPW may have otherwise been shut down.
"Those are jobs, and a lot of us are local, therefore it puts us in the position of being unemployed or having to transfer out and move our families," said Lt. Bergerson.
But many residents are worried about the transition.
"We don't like it at all," Diana Bridgewater said. "It's going to bring in too many other people who shouldn't be here. We're a small town community, and we'd like to keep it that way."
The city of Chowchilla filed an injunction to stop the change, but a judge sided with the state on Tuesday.
City administrator Mark Lewis released a statement: "We are disappointed in the ruling, and we hoped for a better decision. The city did the right thing by the community to oppose the conversion, and we'll continue to do what is in the best interest of our city as we move forward."
Officials at the prison insist the community will not be more at risk when the male inmates arrive. The remaining female inmates will eventually be moved to the other women's prison just down the road, or to the facility in Corona.