Governor Cancels Plans to Expand San Quentin Saving Nearly Half a Billion

san-quentin.jpgGovernor Jerry Brown, in a quick stroke of the pen, has undone one of the more perplexing moves that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made, which was to take 65 million out of the state’s general fund to construct a new wing with 1152 beds for San Quentin’s death row – at a time when the state was not executing new condemned prisoners and at a time when there are only 700 inmates on death row awaiting death sentences.

And it was worse than that, $64.7 million was to be merely a down payment.  The full cost of construction would have been about $360 million from the general fund. The Bee last summer reported, “Interest payments on 20-year bonds the state ordinarily would sell to finance the construction could add another $150 million or more to the final price tag.”

In a press release from the Governor’s office, the Governor issued a statement, “At a time when children, the disabled and seniors face painful cuts to essential programs, the State of California cannot justify a massive expenditure of public dollars for the worst criminals in our state.”

Said Governor Brown. “California will have to find another way to address the housing needs of condemned inmates. It would be unconscionable to earmark $356 million for a new and improved death row while making severe cuts to education and programs that serve the most vulnerable among us.”

According to the Governor’s release, planning for a new condemned inmate housing facility at San Quentin was initiated in 2003, during the administration of Governor Gray Davis, and was continued by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration.

This project would have added another $356 million to the state’s debt, at an annual cost of $28.5 million in debt service that would have come out of General Fund dollars.

The decision by the Governor drew praise in an editorial from the Sacramento Bee. 

They wrote this morning, “[Governor] Brown was also smart this week to cancel a $356 million project to build 768 new cells for death row inmates ($463,000 per cell) at this aging prison. California, he said, “will have to find another way to address the housing needs of condemned inmates.””

“This state has never done an adequate examination of alternatives – from building California’s death row elsewhere to closing the prison and selling the San Quentin site to ending the costly, ineffective death penalty itself,” the editorial adds.

The editorial goes on to examine the construction costs, particularly in Marin County.  “Any construction at San Quentin is inherently expensive. The land underneath the site is very unstable San Francisco Bay mud. Reconstruction would require costly excavation of 15 to 20 feet and then tons of rock to reinforce unstable soils.”

They add, “Further, San Quentin sits in Marin County, one of the highest-cost communities in the state. Prison officers who work there are paid a premium. If placed on the market, San Quentin could fetch more than enough to rebuild death row elsewhere and relocate non-death row prisoners.”

“Finally, a governor has concluded the obvious: It makes no sense to rebuild San Quentin,” the editorial concludes.  “Brown should stand by these decisions – and lawmakers should back him up. It’s possible to be “tough on crime” and fiscally responsible, too.”

The last point is one that needs to be hammered home over and over again.

The idea was hammered by both the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office and state legislators.

The idea should have been shot down by the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) back in 2008.  At that time, the LAO recommended against such additional funding “unless the department can resolve questions about inmate population restrictions at the prison and the tripling of housing unit construction costs for the project.”

“The department’s estimated costs for the project have escalated dramatically over time, even as the scope of the project has been reduced from an original plan for 1,408 beds to the present plan for 1,152 beds for condemned inmates,” the LAO reported.

“Last year, during the course of our review of the 2007–08 budget proposal to complete the construction of the new Death Row, questions arose as to the appropriateness of the condemned housing project in light of constraints imposed on the overall San Quentin inmate population,” the report read.

“The issue of a population cap at San Quentin has important ramifications for the state’s overcrowded state prison system. If the additional capacity added through the CIC[condemned inmate complex] project is added to the existing cells at San Quentin, including those now housing Death Row inmates, it is possible that San Quentin someday might not be able to use its full bed capacity and the state would thus have to let hundreds of beds at the prison remain empty to comply with an agreed–upon population limit,” the report continued. 

“It would not make sense, in our view, to invest such a large sum of state funds for new prison capacity only to have to let hundreds of other prison beds sit idle someday. On the other hand, if the actual capacity of the prison with the added CIC beds is below the agreed upon population cap, this should no longer be a concern.”

Senator Mark Leno pointed out that the construction costs are actually the tip of the iceberg and the bigger problem is the ongoing operating costs.

”While California is in the midst of a dire financial crisis, the Schwarzenegger Administration is pushing forward with the expansion of San Quentin’s death row, without first exploring any alternatives,” the Senator said.  “I continue to oppose this deeply-flawed project.”

“The proposed construction and operating costs will exceed $1.6 billion over the next 11 years, and despite the cost and increased capacity, the new inmate complex would run out of space by 2014,” said Senator Leno.

“The governor’s proposal to use General Fund dollars for this ill-conceived project at a time when he is decimating support for our children’s education and the sustenance of services for seniors and children makes no sense at all. The Schwarzenegger Administration should take the necessary steps to explore alternatives to the expansion of San Quentin before acting recklessly with taxpayer dollars and one of the California coast’s most beautiful and precious stretches of land,” the Senator concluded.

“At a time when the state may be two weeks away from sending IOU’s and when the Governor is attempting to furlough 156,000 state workers, citing our impending cash crisis, it is stunningly hypocritical that he is surreptitiously – and quite possibly illegally – borrowing $64 million from the state’s deteriorating General Fund in order to advance his favorite pet prison project:  the $400 million “Cadillac Death Row” at San Quentin,” Assemblymember Jared Huffman said in August.

“It’s a project that has been stalled by the budget crisis, by the courts, and by the inability to sell bonds due to pending litigation and the uncertain legality of proceeding with construction,” he continued. 

“It’s also a project that the Legislative Analyst found to be so wildly expensive that they recommended scrapping it, and the State Auditor concluded that it would likely provide a very short-term solution for housing condemned inmates since the condemned inmate population would exceed its undersized capacity within three years of completion.  If built, this would be the most expensive inmate housing ever built, at a cost of more than $500,000 per cell.” 

“The Governor should take care of our highest priorities with the limited cash we have in the general fund, and work to resolve the legal questions that have impeded the sale of bonds for his Cadillac Death Row instead of raiding the general fund for this controversial project,” the Assemblymember concluded.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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12 thoughts on “Governor Cancels Plans to Expand San Quentin Saving Nearly Half a Billion”

  1. medwoman

    This is a good start Governor Brown.
    Now how about doing away with the death penalty for fiscal, reasons thereby saving many more millions in trial delays and ongoing appeals, to say nothing of the ever present risk of executing the innocent.

  2. David M. Greenwald

    The problem is that it was an initiative, which limits his ability to do anything. I wonder how much we would save if we scrapped the initiative process.

  3. E Roberts Musser

    I have mixed feelings about the initiative process. I like the idea that the taxpayer can stop some of the nonsense politicians perpetrate. But on the other hand, the voters have done some very, very foolish things all by themselves. I’m torn…

    I agree that Gov. Brown is probably doing the right thing here by refusing to fund an expansion of San Quentin. (I say “probably” bc wasn’t there some controversy over prison overcrowding in which the feds threatened to step in and take over some of our prisons?) Did occur to me that the wealthy folks of Marin County would like nothing better than to rid themselves of San Quentin by selling it off and relocating the prison to another county. That would free up prime real estate in Marin for development. Hoorah for Marin County – but not necessarily nice for the county that gets to house the new prison, depending on how that county viewed having a prison in their own backyard.

  4. medwoman


    You are correct that there is federal involvement in our prison system over the issue of over crowding. We will have to await definitive comment from rdcanning who has expertise in this area. For now, I will share what I know. This expansion, as David correctly stated, was a new death row and therefore would not have helped with the crowding of the general prison population. With our current death row census of approximately 713, even scaling down to 1,152 does not make any economic sense. Also, as pointed out by David, the cost to build at San Quentin probably far exceeds the cost of an adequate, smaller facility addition in a location with less expensive construction and maintenance costs.

  5. E Roberts Musser

    To medwoman: I guess my question is this: is death row itself overly/illegall overcrowded, and the reason this project was proposed? There has been so much swirling around about the overcrowding issue, it is hard to keep up with the nitpicky specifics.

  6. rdcanning

    ERM and Medwoman,

    Every prison is overcrowded, San Quentin is no different. Death Row inmates are housed (as are other inmates at SQ) in a decrepit set of buildings built in the 1920’s. By law death row inmates cannot be housed elsewhere so we are stuck with SQ unless the legislature changes the law. (They used to hang people at Old Folsom but that stopped in 1937 when they created the gas chamber at SQ.)

    The state is in a bind in that the population of condemned individuals (at least the male portion – there are a dozen condemned women at Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla) continues to grow. As noted there are currently 762. More come to SQ each year than die from natural causes, homicide or suicide. CDCR officials will probably just make more cells available to condemned populations and move other inmates out of SQ. SQ is home to two basic populations of inmates: condemned and reception center. There are others there (parolees and guys who keep the place running) but eventually something will have to give and I am not sure how they will manage the population at SQ. The system is pretty full as it is and if we move people out of one place, we have to put them elsewhere. Right now the CDCR is sending another 4,000 inmates out of state – some to Michigan to a former state prison there (now run by a private company), and some to Colorado I believe. That will bring the total to 15,000 out of state by year’s end.

    I believe the new death row was originally planned so they had capacity for expected new arrivals. It would also free up other beds at SQ.

  7. JustSaying

    [quote]“By law death row inmates cannot be housed elsewhere so we are stuck with SQ unless the legislature changes the law.”[/quote]Why is there such a law? It doesn’t seem as though anyone could benefit financially, so it’s difficult to see anyone lobbying for such a law. Maybe someone just wanted to assure that no nasty, condemned dudes would be housed in “our backyard”?

    How about building a new high-security prison in some poor county that wants the jobs. (We’d probably take it if it generated sale taxes.) It would lower the high operating costs, and could be converted when we abolish the death penalty and then used for the nastiest prison troublemakers.

  8. rdcanning


    I don’t know the legislative history of the law so I can’t say. It was done at a time when SQ was our highest security prison, was already doing executions, and we had 3 or 4 prisons statewide. Remember, it was in the 1930’s when the world was very different and we didn’t lock up people at very high rates.

    In regard to your second point, I’m not sure if you are saying that tongue-in-cheek or not. We have placed a number of big, high-security prisons in very rural areas. Think Pelican Bay (Del Norte County), High Desert (Susanville – where there are two other large prisons too), Centinela and Calipatria (Imperial), Avenal (Kings), and others. That’s a failed policy (I think so anyway) that has cost the state a lot of money, enriched the CCPOA, and has not helped the local economies much. And we already keep “the nastiest prison troublemakers” in one: Pelican Bay next to the Oregon border.

    We don’t need more prisons. We need more sane crime and punishment policies.

  9. mercy for all

    Wonderful, canceling another multi-billion dollar death row. Now if we can only get the good Governor to cancel the one we already have and the death penalty power/money machine that feeds it we may have a real dent in the state budget budget crisis.

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