California's most hardened criminals and vicious murderers will be getting new death row digs, courtesy of a controversial renovation project with a price tag that's got some in the financially beleaguered state crying foul.
State officials justified the $356 million project by pointing out the security and safety flaws at the state's notorious San Quentin death row, which houses such high-profile murderers as Drew Peterson, Richard Ramirez and Cary Stayner.
But local and state officials questioned Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's commitment to pay a $64.7 million down payment out of the cash-strapped state's general fund, at a time when funding is being reduced or withheld from schools and state workers have been forced through a summer of furlough days.
"It is the poster child for this administration's failure to prioritize in tough times," state Assemblyman Jared Huffman, R-San Rafael, said. He has repeatedly dubbed the project California's "Cadillac Death Row."
"It's the most expensive prison cell space on the planet," he said.
Huffman is one of two state legislators to file a legal challenge to Schwarzenegger's use of veto power to excise from the budget language that would have called for studies and resolutions of the state's well-known prison overcrowding problem.
A decision is expected in November, but bids are scheduled to be opened on the project on Tuesday.
"I think a bidder would be crazy to extend any of the resources on this project because there is a huge legal cloud over it," Huffman said.
H.D. Palmer, the state's deputy finance director, said that the death row is in dire need of immediate attention and that because the state's penal code dictates executions be done at San Quentin, they cannot even consider moving death row elsewhere.
"Given the safety issues and the structural issues that are involved here, and given the fact that capital punishment is still the law of the land here … this facility needs to go forward," Palmer said.
Various state-calculated scenarios could add between $260 million and $450 million in interest to the final cost of the project.
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The three housing blocks where condemned inmates live were constructed in the 1920s, 1930s and 1960s. The most decrepit of the three, known as East Block, was never meant to be death row, but it holds most of the state's condemned inmates.
East Block and another section, known as North Segregation, were built with "open" cell fronts, the state reported, leaving other prisoners and prison staff vulnerable when inmates thrust homemade weapons or their own feces through the bars.
And on the East Block, there is only one line of perimeter security between the cells and the San Francisco Bay. It is a 12-foot masonry wall topped with razor wire. The state, which has questioned the current structure's ability to contain prisoners during an earthquake, plans to construct a double wall with an electrified fence in between.
But many in the area aren't buying this project as a state necessity. The Larkspur City Council, whose town sits adjacent to San Quentin, voted -- at Huffman's request -- to send a letter to Schwarzenegger opposing the expansion.
"This project is already plagued by excessive cost overruns and difficult staffing conditions," the letter read, "no alternative uses for the site have ever been analyzed and discussed publicly and the State's current financial condition calls into question the prudence of moving forward at this time."
Both the Sacramento Bee and the Stockton Record newspapers have run editorials against the proposal.
The Bee editorial accuses Schwarzenegger of having a "twisted sense of timing," and says the governor "needs to reconsider his priorities and focus on what is truly important as his time as governor ends."
The Stockton Record called dipping into the general fund "ludicrous" and the entire project "loony."
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The project will be done in two construction phases. The first, for which the bids will be opened next week, will include the demolition of the current site and the construction of the housing units and guard towers. The second, to go out to bid in 2011, will see the support buildings and security systems go up.
Scheduled for completion in 2013, the new death row would have 1,152 beds in 768 cells. There would be two condemned inmates per cell, something done in other states that has met opposition in California.
Palmer insists that by moving forward now, the state will save millions in bid reductions and interest payments.
But in an August weekly radio address on the need for long-term budget reform, Schwarzenegger said he was "fighting for lower taxes, no borrowing, less spending."
"It's always about should we cut spending and live within our means, or raise taxes," he said.
Palmer said the only reason the state turned to the general fund to finance the first year of costs is that the legal skirmishes have blocked the state's ability to sell bonds to finance the San Quentin project properly.
"We think we're going to prevail in the case," Palmer said, adding that the state would sell bonds next year to cover what it took from its so-called rainy day fund. "It's not like the general fund is out forever on this."