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Life Near a Prison: Weighing the Good, the Bad : Proposed East L.A. Facility Raises Some Fears; Others Cite the Advantages

September 19, 1986|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

If John Mendonca wants to know if there's a prison inmate loose in his Chino neighborhood, all he has to do is step outside and see if the dreaded blue beacon is flashing a few blocks away at the California Institution for Men.

The light, installed at the prison after an escaped convict killed four people in a nearby Chino Hills home in 1983, alerts residents to the fact that an inmate has broken out. Or taken off from a work crew of supervised minimum security prisoners.

Not Particularly Alarmed

But Mendonca is not particularly alarmed at the sight of the blue light blinking from the minimum and medium security prison about 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

He's used to escapes (two so far this year). On several occasions, Mendonca, a dairy farm employee, has discovered convicts' clothing in a hay barn near his house and called the police. One time, he also found a sack of razor blades, but so far he has not encountered any inmates.

"If I was afraid, I wouldn't have lived here for 17 years," Mendonca insisted.

It is a view voiced by many of the residents within proximity of the prison. As Mendonca's wife, Betty, explained, "If you live this close, you can't be afraid. We always feel if they're going to get out of there, they're not going to stay around here. I think there's more crime happening in town than there is here. It's pretty much country out here."

That relaxed view is not shared by everyone who lives with a prison or jail in his vicinity. And though there are cities that welcome prisons (many residents in Blythe, for example, are eagerly awaiting approval of a new state prison for their city because of the expected 700 steady jobs and annual payroll of $13 million it would bring), such acceptance is hardly universal.

In East Los Angeles, residents have been struggling to keep a proposed state prison out of their community for more than two years.

In recent weeks, several hundred Boyle Heights residents have appeared in Sacramento for last-minute lobbying, hoping to persuade legislators to vote against a bill placing another penal institution in East L.A.

They argue that there are already four such facilities in their area (including the county's Hall of Justice downtown, 2 1/2 miles from the proposed prison site at 12th Street and Santa Fe Avenue). And they insist that there should be a full environmental review of the prison property before it's purchased. Thus far, the protesters have registered some major results. Last month, after their lobbying, the Senate reversed itself and rejected a plan to build the prison in East L.A. The Assembly approved the plan, which remains unresolved pending a special legislative session next Tuesday.

What is it like to have penal institutions for neighbors?

Frank Villalobos, one of the East L.A. community activists lobbying against the proposed prison, already knows.

A landscape architect and urban planner, Villalobos lives six blocks from two county detention facilities, the Sybil Brand Institute for Women and the Biscailuz Center for Adult Detention. If the new state prison also lands in East L.A., Villalobos' home will be about two miles from it.

A Negative Image

"Twice a day, I see the inmates and visitors and everybody else going to those places," he said. "My kids ask, 'Who are these people?' It projects a negative image on the neighborhood. Instead of looking to a positive future, our kids see a negative aspect of society."

Villalobos feels so strongly about not having yet another barred facility in East L.A. that he has made about 15 trips to Sacramento in the last 18 months--at his own expense and on his vacation time. As do most people, he accepts the fact that it's fair to put a state prison in Los Angles County, since there isn't one here and approximately 38% of the state's inmates come from the county.

"Part of life includes freeways and jails, except that in East L.A. we have all the freeways and all the jails already. We have five freeways and four jails," he said. "We think that it is the responsibility of the rest of the city to bear the same responsibility."

(Arguments in favor of placing a prison in East L.A. include that it would be in a central location--near the county jails, courts, freeways and bus stops--which would reduce transportation costs for the state and for prison visitors. In addition, proponents contend the 30-acre land parcel available in East L.A can be purchased for a price well within the state's allotted budget and is located in an industrial area.)

But Villalobos and others respond that the fact that the prison would be constructed in an industrial area is deceptive. He claimed that within a one-mile radius of the proposed prison site there are thousands of residents, 5,689 alone (at last count) in two large, low-cost apartment complexes. And, said Villalobos, there are 21 public schools and five parochial schools within a two-mile radius of the proposed prison site.

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