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Brown Cancels California’s $356 Million ‘Cadillac’ Death Row

A view of the California State Prison at San Quentin. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A view of the California State Prison at San Quentin. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

April 28 (Bloomberg) -- California Governor Jerry Brown scuttled plans to build a $356 million new death row at San Quentin prison that some lawmakers derided as a “Cadillac” because of its cost.

Brown said it would be “unconscionable” to go ahead with the complex north of San Francisco, planned since 2003, when the state is cutting jobs and services to bridge a deficit.

California, which holds the largest number of death-row prisoners in the U.S., faces a resurgent budget deficit equal to nearly 20 percent of the general fund. Interest on prison construction bonds would have cost $28.5 million a year.

“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,” Brown said in a statement.

The project, at 540,000 square feet (50,000 square meters), was intended to replace cells dating as far back as 1927 that prison guards said are unsafe. Lawmakers such as Senator Mark Leno and Assemblyman Jared Huffman, both Democrats, opposed the complex and said it might reach capacity in as little as three years.

“The proposed Condemned Inmate Complex was going to be a ‘Cadillac death row’ -- hugely expensive and ill-conceived,” Huffman said in a statement today.

About 700 condemned men are confined at San Quentin 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.


The project design called for 768 new cells. While inmates now live one to a cell, the prison system had planned to double-bunk to make room for 1,152 men. Opponents such as Huffman said that might have violated prisoners’ rights and could be challenged in court.

Putting two inmates in each cell would provide enough capacity for death row until 2035, according to the state auditor. If the state couldn’t double-up, the complex would be full by 2014.

Brown opposed capital punishment during his first two terms as governor, from 1975 to 1983. Before his current term, he was attorney general from 2007 to 2011 and, in that role, he defended the death penalty.

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.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Marois in Sacramento at;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at

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