SACRAMENTO — The Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility at Rock Mountain is rapidly taking shape on a sparsely populated mesa 12 miles from the Pacific Ocean, two miles from the Mexican border, and about two miles from the geological elevation that inspired its name.
But after years of planning, design and construction delays, the scheduled Dec. 1 opening of the new state prison in San Diego County is now threatened by a political stalemate more than 500 miles away--in Sacramento.
"Given the word to go ahead," state correction officials say they could be ready in 11 weeks to fling open the gates of the first all new men's prison to be built in California in more than two decades.
The first busloads of inmates will likely arrive on unpaved roads, and inmates will greet their first visitors and undergo their initial medical screenings in temporary trailers that will soon be moved to the 730-acre site.
The gray walls of the first five housing units and a central kitchen are virtually in place, said John Ratelle, acting superintendent of the soon-to-open Rock Mountain prison in Otay Mesa.
Standing in the way of the opening, however, is a four-year-old state law that says a prison must be "designated and approved" in Los Angeles County before new prisons can open elsewhere.
San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino legislators insisted upon the so-called "linkage language" in prison authorization bills passed by the Legislature in 1982 and 1983.
Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista), who authored some of the key "linkage" provisions when he was still a freshman lawmaker, said no one could foresee at the time that it would become such a hotly debated topic or a key issue in this year's governor's race.
But backers of legislation to authorize a prison near heavily Latino East Los Angeles said efforts to remove or ease those restrictions were a sticking point this week as Senate Democrats and Gov. George Deukmejian reached an impasse over the Los Angeles prison site.
Sen. Wadie P. Deddeh (D-Chula Vista), who has bucked the Senate Democratic leadership and supports the governor on the issue, was among those most adamant that the provisions should not be weakened--even if it delays the opening of the new prison in his district.
"If we were to end the linkage," Deddeh said, the pressure would be removed and the powerful legislative delegations from Los Angeles County would block any plans to build a prison there. "I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts," said Deddeh.
"It is not fair for Los Angeles County, which contributes 38% of the prison population, not to have a prison site," Deddeh added.
"We wouldn't even be having this discussion about an L.A. prison if there had not been the linkage language," echoed Peace. "When you have almost half the Legislature coming from Los Angeles County . . . politically it would become impossible to place the site."
But while Peace sides with the Republican governor in the controversy over the Los Angeles prison site, he said Deukmejian and others are over-blowing the potential impact of the current stalemate on the opening of the new prison in San Diego.
In a press conference at the San Diego prison site last week, Deukmejian said the state's correctional facilities "are very dangerously overcrowded" and a "potential powder keg waiting to explode."
California's state prisons have a current population of nearly 57,000 although their combined design capacity is less than 33,000. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley, who says he supports a Los Angeles prison but not at the site the administration has selected, has said Deukmejian could invoke his emergency powers and open the San Diego prison and a new women's prison in Stockton.
But Peace said he is not convinced the state Department of Corrections will have the new prison ready to open in December anyway. "Considering (the Department of) Correction's history, there may not be any great rush."
If the stalemate continues, Peace added, the new Legislature can deal with necessary exemptions to open the San Diego prison when it convenes in early December. The delay in opening the new prison would be little more than a week, he said.
Among San Diego County lawmakers, only Assemblyman Pete Chacon (D-San Diego) has opposed the Los Angeles prison site. Other San Diego legislators--including Deddeh and Peace, who have large Latino populations in their districts--said the area being considered is heavily industrialized and blighted. Although it is near the Boyle Heights neighborhood, they said, it is substantially isolated from it.
"I would never vote to dump anything on . . . a Hispanic community," said Deddeh.
"It is an incredibly bogus issue," said Peace. "I didn't see any of those people (Los Angeles prison opponents) marching down to my district to protest on behalf of the 85% Latino population that live within a 15-square-mile radius of the San Diego prison site."