DELANO, Calif. — Two brand-new state prisons, built at a combined cost of nearly $400 million and designed to hold more than 4,600 inmates, are standing empty--despite the severe overcrowding in California's prisons--because corrections officials cannot afford to open them.
The officials say budget cutbacks mandated by Gov. Pete Wilson forced them to postpone for one year the opening of a prison near this Kern County town. A penitentiary at Calipatria in Imperial County will stand vacant until January for the same reason.
Officials say the delay will save more than $32 million in operating costs, but they acknowledge that hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries are being paid to wardens and other state employees assigned to the vacant penitentiaries.
At the sprawling Delano State Prison, where the brown-on-brown cellblocks and gunmetal-blue towers stand silent, administrators insist they need a dozen or so staff members for maintenance and other duties.
"It's a tremendous job when you think of all these buildings," said Lew Jones, the new prison manager who will become warden when the penitentiary opens next year. "There's the upkeep of the buildings. The (sliding steel cell) doors have to be opened and closed (to keep them in working order). That's something people don't think about."
"Toilets have to be flushed," said Tom Shanyfelt, associate warden at Delano. Otherwise, he said, seals will dry up and crack, and the toilets will leak.
Neither of the two prisons is finished, but enough cellblocks have been completed that convicts could have been admitted on schedule if the openings had not been postponed.
California's prisons are operating at more than 180% of design capacity. There are 101,342 inmates jammed into space built for 54,344. The prison population--though growing at a much slower pace this year--is nevertheless expected to increase by 6,000 inmates per year.
Prison reformers maintain that the delay in opening the two penitentiaries is proof that the state policy of spending billions of dollars to lock up more felons is financially impractical.
"There is no question we keep robbing Peter to pay Paul," said Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a nonprofit organization that advocates alternatives to prison sentences. "And this year Peter was tapped out, so Paul is out of luck."
"This really shows the absurdity of trying to build your way out of the overcrowding mess," said Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit law firm that handles inmate rights cases. "It's just a symptom that they can't afford it. It reminds me of the freeway ramps that kind of end in the middle of nowhere."
James Austin, executive vice president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit organization that studies trends in criminal justice, likened the empty prisons to gigantic, absurd works of art. "You could call it the ultimate Christo decorating the hillsides of California," he said. "They are real big umbrellas."
James H. Gomez, director of the state Department of Corrections: "I just say bunk. The state is in a valley financially. We will be coming out of that valley in the future. Over 20-year periods, there will be ups and downs in government."
As for the sentencing issue, he said: "The state Legislature, the present governor, the past governor and the people have continued to vote for increased penalties to lock people up. It's their decision."
It is not the first time that California corrections officials have delayed opening a state prison because of financial problems. The opening of the Blythe prison was postponed for four months in 1988 to save money, and the Pelican Bay prison near the Oregon border stood vacant for a year, from April, 1989, to April, 1990, for the same reason, according to corrections officials.
California is not alone in being unable to operate its new prisons because of tight finances. New penitentiaries stand empty in Illinois and Florida, according to Austin of the crime and delinquency council. Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Prison Construction and Operations, agreed that postponing the prison openings was financially necessary but said it is "shameful" that dozens of state employees are being paid to staff the empty facilities. Corrections officials say staff members are needed for maintenance and inmate preparation.
Many employees at both prisons have been working at the sites for months, sent there to prepare for opening dates that were canceled in May.
Prisons chief Gomez said he was "not uncomfortable" that 33 staff members work at Calipatria because the prison, scheduled to open in August, will begin receiving inmates by January. In September, the monthly payroll at the prison was $111,000.