Bonnie Holt said she feels "a daily pall of fear" whenever she thinks that a jail holding 6,000 inmates could be built in Chiquita Canyon, just a few miles from her south Orange County neighborhood.
"I've been told," said the San Juan Capistrano mother of school-age children, "that they plan to release about 300 prisoners a day into our community (as their terms expire), and heaven knows what's in the minds of those people. Our children are out on their bikes, or walking to and from school."
Holt spoke Tuesday morning at a rally to protest consideration of Chiquita Canyon as one of four possible sites for a remote medium- to maximum-security jail to help relieve critical overcrowding in the county jail system. The Orange County Board of Supervisors is expected to choose one of the proposed sites today.
More than 100 people, many of them children, attended the rally held in the yard of the Harold J. Ambuehl Elementary School, a peaceful, rustic setting near San Juan Creek in the eastern section of San Juan Capistrano.
The demonstration came after a similar rally Saturday in Anaheim's Weir Canyon, where more than 500 people turned out to protest another of the four potential jail sites--Gypsum-Coal Canyon near Anaheim Hills. The other sites being considered are in undeveloped areas of Fremont Canyon and Irvine Lake, east of Orange Park Acres.
In San Juan Capistrano on Tuesday, protesters and their children listened as several speakers voiced their opposition to building a jail in Chiquita Canyon, about five miles northeast of downtown San Juan Capistrano.
"If there's a jailbreak?" asked Holt. "I have a friend in Santa Fe (near a New Mexico prison where seven men escaped recently), and she told me on the phone that everything came to a standstill--roadblocks everywhere, residents like captives in their own neighborhoods."
Marlene Draper, another mother who organized Tuesday's rally, pointed out that the only access to the proposed Chiquita Canyon site is by way of Ortega Highway, a road already infamous for its heavy traffic and accidents.
The highway would be used daily, she said, by scores of buses and other vehicles transporting prisoners to and from the jail. (According to an environmental impact report on the four proposed sites, the jail is expected to average about 350 inmate releases a day.)
Then, as children waved their protest signs and played in an old-fashioned, iron-barred jail cell brought to the schoolyard from San Juan Capistrano, where it is used for laughs during the annual swallows festivals, Draper introduced Mayor Tony Bland.
"We already have the only waste dump in the south county," the San Juan Capistrano city councilman said. "And we're close to San Onofre (the nuclear generating station) and its emergency evacuation plans.
"A 6,000-bed jail in the midst of this doesn't show good planning. Traffic on Ortega Highway is already terrible, and I believe this (Chiquita) site is farther away from the center of the county's judicial activities than the other three."
Brand said the city would be represented at today's meeting of the county supervisors.
Another San Juan resident, Mike Wyner, expressed surprise that Chiquita Canyon was even considered, given its proximity to the nuclear generating plant.
"It's amazing to me that the supervisors let it get this far," he said. "An accident at San Onofre would shut down all our roads for evacuations, and the 6,000 prisoners would have to be evacuated first. Where do we go?"
Paul Carey, an executive assistant to south county Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, attended the rally but did not speak or respond to the statement that prisoners would have priority in evacuations in the case of a nuclear accident at San Onofre. In a later telephone interview, however, he said the jail site would be outside the 10-mile emergency evacuation area and would not be affected by a mishap at San Onofre.
Carey said Tuesday that he had checked with county fire and Civil Defense officials as recently as three weeks ago and was assured that no priority would be given prisoners, although the county would be responsible for their evacuation in a nuclear accident.
Draper, also interviewed after the rally, said "someone" in Riley's office had given her group the impression that "schoolchildren and anyone incarcerated" would be given priority, but she added that the information was obtained "so long ago she couldn't remember" who it came from.
Steve Heggen, president of Ambuehl Elementary School's Parent-Teachers Assn., said his top concerns are security and transportation.
Mark Campaigne, headmaster of nearby St. Margaret's Episcopal School, told of the increasing use of the hiking, riding and bicycling trails that lace rural--and even downtown--portions of San Juan Capistrano.
"You see children on those trails," Campaigne said. "Often, they are alone."