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.”
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