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Governor pitches fixing up San Quentin's death row

August 16, 2010 6:57:03 PM PDT
As California struggles with an enormous budget deficit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is trying to do something the critics call crazy -- spend millions to rebuild San Quentin's death row. However, the governor contends, his plan will actually save the state a lot of money.

The $400 million death row expansion project at San Quentin includes 768 cells -- enough for more than 1,100 beds. The new complex will also have a hospital and six guard stations.

"In the best of times, this is a lousy project," says Assm. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.

Huffman, whose district includes San Quentin, is upset Schwarzenegger is moving ahead with the prison's expansion, borrowing $65 million from the general fund for the first phase.

The move comes at a time when the state is facing a $19 billion deficit, plus the six-week old budget stalemate puts California closer to issuing IOUs to pay its bills.

"That's $65 million closer to IOUs, to deferrals all payments to schools, to childcare centers to health clinics, to critical needs that surely ought to rank well ahead of this boondoggle prison project that we don't need and can't afford," says Huffman.

But the governor's office says the Legislature itself passed a law several years ago requiring death row to be upgraded. Now is the time to start the project because it'll cost taxpayers up to 55 percent less and provide about 6,000 jobs.

"Right now, we have an incredibly favorable bid climate in California. Construction firms are very eager to do business, particularly with the state," says H.D. Palmer from the California Department of Finance.

Borrowing from the general fund is the only way to kick start the San Quentin project because a pending budget lawsuit between the governor and Legislature has made it impossible for the state to get a construction bond from Wall Street.

The administration points out the budget for other state programs won't be affected and the $65 million will eventually be paid back once the state can sell construction bonds.

But folks here at Resources for Independent Living don't believe that the money will be re-paid and wonder why prisoners seem to matter more when their services for the disabled, which are on the chopping block.

"In lean times, you have to prioritize and I would think holding harmless innocent poor people of California would be a number one priority," says Frances Gracechild from Resources For Independent Living.

The project is expected to take in three years.

Huffman says this would be the most expensive prison housing built at $500,000 per cell.


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