SACRAMENTO — With a lingering political stalemate threatening the scheduled opening next month of a new state prison in San Diego, state corrections officials have sent home nearly half of the 98 staff members who moved into the area in recent weeks.
A state Department of Corrections spokesman said 55 people who have legitimate tasks to perform remain in the San Diego area to ready the new prison for opening. But 43 others who would have nothing to do until the prison opens its gates have been transferred--most back to the institutions they had just left. All had been moved to the area at state expense this month.
The first 500 cells of the 2,200-cell medium-security prison, located on 730 acres in Otay Mesa near the Mexican border, had been scheduled to open Nov. 24, according to corrections officials.
But Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista) said the prison is not nearly ready to open, and he can't understand why the department would have started moving personnel to San Diego to staff it.
"It sounds even sillier if you go down there and look at the facility," Peace said. "If it wasn't for politics, nobody in his right mind would consider occupying that facility (now). . . . They've got a temporary fence and guard tower around one of the little areas. It's crazy."
The roads leading to the prison are still unpaved, the dining room is still under construction (inmates would be served meals in their cells) and the medical unit is housed in temporary trailers. Nonetheless, state corrections officials insist that the $140-million facility could open Nov. 24, except for a legislative restriction that links the site designation and approval of a new prison in Los Angeles County with the opening of new prisons elsewhere.
What now appears to be an almost-certain delay in the opening of the new prison--and a women's prison in Stockton--is affecting 405 corrections officers, nurses and other support personnel who have either been granted or are awaiting transfers, said Robert Gore, assistant director of the department.
So far, he said, no people have been moved to the Stockton facility, which Gore said will also be ready to open later next month.
Gore said state personnel officials have given the OK for the department to pay one-way moving expenses for all the officers transferred to San Diego. For those transferred back to their old institutions, Gore said the state would pay for storing their belongings in San Diego, and the officers will also get $65-a-day "per diem" living expenses for maintaining residences away from their new home.
He said there was no way for him to estimate the state's total bill for relocation expenses.
Don Novey, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., said union officials would definitely insist that the officers involved be fully reimbursed for any expenses they incur.
But Novey said the CCPOA might also file a lawsuit demanding that the San Diego prison open as soon as it is ready because prison overcrowding puts union members in danger. Nearly 58,000 people in California are being housed in prisons that have combined rated capacity of less than 33,000.
"Both sides . . . are posturing and we are in the middle," Novey said. "We are going to go to some judge and get that sucker open."
Peace said, however, that the San Diego prison is not nearly ready to open anyway. He said opening the prison without permanent fences and guard towers would endanger the surrounding community. As the assemblyman who represents the area, Peace said he would "not allow it."
Peace was one of the authors of key provisions in state law that require a prison site be chosen in Los Angeles County before new prisons open elsewhere. And he sided with Republican Gov. George Deukmejian when Deukmejian and Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) feuded earlier this year over the proposed location of a new Los Angeles County prison.
But the assemblyman charged that corrections officials were moving personnel back and forth now to provide political ammunition to use against Democratic senators who sided with Roberti and who face reelection bids next Tuesday.
"That's the only thing that makes sense," said Peace, a frequent critic of state corrections officials. "Maybe they are just that incompetent. But I can't believe that anybody is that incompetent."