March 4 (Bloomberg) -- California is set to begin construction of a new death row, already the biggest in the U.S., at a cost to taxpayers of as much as $1 billion, even though it may reach capacity in as little as three years.
Contracts for the unit at San Quentin prison may be awarded in weeks. The complex would replace cells there dating as far back as 1927. The project, at 540,000 square feet (50,000 square meters), would be about the size of the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford.
Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, is negotiating with lawmakers to plug a $25.4 billion deficit over the next 15 months through a combination of tax extensions and spending cuts. With services for the poor, sick and elderly threatened, some lawmakers say it’s not the time to spend money on 768 new cells.
“It’s a Cadillac death row,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, a Democrat from Marin County, where the prison is located, about 10 miles north of the Golden Gate. “Even if you were to somehow try to justify this huge expense by saying this is the solution to our condemned-inmate needs, it’s a three-year solution and then you are left right where we are now.”
While inmates now live one to a cell, the prison system plans to double-bunk, to make room for 1,152 men. Opponents say that might violate prisoners’ rights.
Executions have been blocked since 2006 by a federal judge over concerns that California’s lethal injection procedures and equipment were tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment. Last month, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel toured San Quentin’s new death chamber, built for almost $900,000. He has yet to rule on its fitness.
The death-row complex, estimated by the prison system to cost $270 million, is to be financed with bonds. The interest on the bonds over 25 years may bring the cost to taxpayers to $1 billion, according to Huffman and Senator Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco and chairman of the Budget Committee.
California has 713 inmates awaiting execution, the corrections department said yesterday. By comparison, Florida ranked second, with 398, and Texas was third at 337, according to a Jan. 1 report by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
About 700 condemned men are confined at San Quentin, north of San Francisco, in facilities built to hold 554, according to the Corrections Department’s website. (Nineteen women face execution and are held in Chowchilla, a prison in the Central Valley.) On average, the men are likely to spend 17 years in the aging cell blocks, according to the prison system.
Brown, 72, who took office in January, has proposed $12.5 billion of cuts as the lowest-rated and most-populous state grapples with its latest deficit. His budget earmarks about 11 percent, or $9.1 billion, from the general fund, the state’s main account, for prisons and parole in the coming fiscal year. It’s the fourth largest expenditure in the budget after schools, colleges and welfare.
Brown’s predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, approved a $64 million loan from the general fund in August to begin construction on the new death row. That money is to be repaid by the sale of prison construction bonds.
When lawmakers in 2003 approved the new San Quentin complex, it was expected to cost $220 million. That ballooned 62 percent to $356 million on delays caused in part by opposition from state and local officials. The estimate was lowered when initial bids came in below projections, officials said.
The prison system has delayed awarding a contract to give Brown time to review the project, said Paul Verke, a Corrections Department spokesman.
“The administration will carefully evaluate the project, and we’ve asked for an extension that will allow us to do our due diligence,” said Gil Duran, a spokesman for Brown.
Brown opposed capital punishment during his first two terms as governor, from 1975 to 1983. Prior to his current term, he was attorney general from 2007 to 2011 and, in that role, he defended the death penalty.
Putting two inmates in each cell would provide enough capacity for death row until 2035, according to the state auditor. If the state can’t double-up, the complex would be full by 2014.
Leno is seeking a provision in the budget to prohibit a contract from being awarded until double-celling is declared legal. He also wants to wait until the U.S. Supreme Court rules whether the state must reduce its inmate population by 46,000 to ease overcrowding.
The state’s existing death-row buildings include two cell blocks built in 1927 and 1934 and a three-story concrete “adjustment center” where newly sentenced and the most-dangerous condemned inmates are confined.
Current prisoners include Scott Peterson, the Modesto fertilizer salesman convicted of murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn child, and serial killer Richard Ramirez, known as the “Night Stalker” of Los Angeles.
Since 1978, when California reinstated capital punishment, 53 condemned inmates have died from natural causes while on death row. Eighteen committed suicide and 13 were executed. Six died from other causes.
Robert Coombs, a Sacramento-based senior policy analyst for the Council of State Government’s Justice Center, said California’s death row has the most acute crowding problem. Ohio, which he said also faces prison overcrowding, has 156 condemned inmates, according to its Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Ohio executed eight in 2010.
“They are much more willing to exercise their capital punishment system than California, thus alleviating one of the pressures that our state wrestles with,” Coombs said.
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